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After their annual ‘burning of the shoes,’ the Yellow Jackets are ready for the playoffs

Time:2016-11-14 16:05Shoes websites Click:

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The burning of the shoes has been a football tradition at St. Augustine High for 20 years.

Head coach Brian Braddock participated in the ceremony when he was a senior, playing for coach Joey Wiles.

On the first Thursday of what could be the final practice of the season, the team burns some cleats and gathers around the fire as each senior delivers a farewell address.

“It’s a big deal,” Braddock said. “The seniors take pride in it, and its special for us coaches. It’s a rite of passage.”

Braddock’s teams did not get to go to the playoffs. So at that time the players knew the burning of the shoes would end their final practice before their final game.

But since then, the Yellow Jackets have made 18 consecutive playoff appearances, and they have usually advanced to the second round, giving them more practices and extending their season.

St. Augustine (9-1) will host Niceville (8-2) in a Region 1-6A quarterfinal at 7:30 tonight.

The burning of the shoes might not have helped the Yellow Jackets advance in the playoffs over the years, but it certainly hasn’t hurt. St. Augustine has won 12 of their last 16 playoff openers.

“It’s very emotional,” said offensive lineman Ian Segui, who was still trying to decide Thursday afternoon what he was going to say to his teammates and coaches a couple of hours later. “Last year after we did it, I didn’t want the season to end. I wanted to win for our seniors. Maybe it will inspire some of our younger players.”

The common theme is, enjoy your high school experience, because it goes by quickly.

“I never thought it would come this fast,” Segui said. “Football has blown by. Last Friday was Senior Night. It’s crazy.”

Quarterback Cole Northrup, a four-year starter, had some ideas of what he was going to say Thursday evening. He also suspected that once he stood up and looked in his teammates’ eyes in the flickering light, his mind would go blank and the words would come from his heart.

“It’s tough to see people leave, to talk about their experiences,” Northrup said. “It’s a tradition. It shows we are family. We always try to help the underclassmen and show respect to the upperclassmen.”

One of the Yellow Jackets’ other traditions is winning. Last year they started the playoffs on the road for the first time since 2003. Niceville handed them a 20-3 loss and a long trip back to St. Augustine. This year, the roles are reversed. St. Augustine won its district, while Niceville is a runner-up making the long trip.

“I think we’re tougher this year,” Segui said. “We have four (starting) linemen back from last year. We’re not going into this game big-headed. We know what it takes.”

St. Augustine and Niceville are similar programs with winning traditions, exceptional coaches and disciplined players.

“They’re very, very talented,” Braddock said. “They’re pretty sound everywhere, which is indicative of a typical Niceville program. They don’t have a weakness, and that’s their M.O.”

Braddock said the Yellow Jackets, who have won nine in a row, still haven’t played their best football.

“We’re still searching for that,” he said. “The big theme is not to fall on the trap that it’s the playoffs now, we just have to play. We can still get better.”

The Jackets should get a boost from the return of senior running back Jahq Russell, who was forced to miss three games after getting flagged for two unsportsmanlike penalties against Ed White.

“I’m very excited to get back and be with my team,” said Russell, who has rushed for 650 yards and 10 touchdowns. “I’m getting a chance to redeem myself. I’m fixing to play my heart out.”

Northrup expects the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Russell to take his frustrations out on the Jackets’ opponents tonight.

“He’s like a caged animal,” Northrup said. “He’s been pent up for four weeks. Hopefully he’s going to come out with a vengeance.”

The Jackets have a balanced offense. Northrup, who has thrown for 6,518 yards and 65 touchdowns in his career, has led an offense that averages 207.1 yards passing and 177.5 yards rushing. And true to their nickname, the Yellow Jackets have a swarming defense that is allowing just 185.5 yards and has 16 takeaways.

But tonight, they’ll see a similar team on the other side of the football. The Eagles average about 400 yards of offense and have forced their opponents into 24 turnovers.

“They’re a lot like us in a lot of ways,” Northrup said. “They’re physical, they’re well-coached. They have a lot of tradition just like we do. But this time the game is at our house.”

Friday’s Games

Region 1-6A quarterfinal

Niceville at St. Augustine, 7:30 p.m.

Region 1-5A quarterfinal

Yulee at Ponte Vedra, 7:30 p.m.

Region 1-7A quarterfinal

Bartram Trail at Ocoee, 7:30 p.m.

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