📸: Kenley Lafitte

In front of a packed auditorium filled with family, friends, and classmates, six Niceville High School students took to the stage on Wednesday and took the next step in their athletic careers.
As part of National Signing Day, the student athletes signed letters of intent to play for colleges and universities across the country. The moment was a culmination of years of training, practice, and hard work, and is especially noteworthy considering what a small percentage of high school athletes make it to the next level of competition.

“I read a statistic the other day that 8 million student athletes participated in high school sports last year,” said NHS athletic director Daniel Griffin, who served as the master of ceremonies of the event. “Only seven percent actually move on to play at the college level. We’re looking at Powerball numbers here.”

The six athletes who managed to beat those odds include baseball player Kai Baily, who signed with Coastal Alabama Community College; lacrosse player Paetyn Hoffman, who signed with Tusculum University; track and field team member Raiden Lafortune, who will throw the javelin at the College of William and Mary; baseball player Brock Marello, who is headed to the University of West Florida; Ayden “Pezzy” Morales, who will be joining the soccer team at Evangel University; and track and field team member Brooke Ziemak, who signed with Florida International University.
“What they have done is maximized the opportunity they were given to be student athletes at Niceville High School,” said principal Charlie Marello, who was both a proud principal and proud parent at the ceremony. Marello’s son, Brock, is following in his father’s footsteps by playing baseball at the University of West Florida.

In an emotional speech, the younger Marello thanked his friends, coaches, teammates, and family for the support and guidance they have given him over the years. He saved his final thanks for his “greatest supporter” – his mom – and the man he referred to as “my hero, my role model, my first coach, and my best friend” – his dad

“I guess you’re a pretty good principal, too, but don’t let that go to your head,” he said with a laugh.

Paetyn Hoffman, whose coach called her “a coach’s dream,” said she was excited to be able to continue her lacrosse career in college. “Thank you to all the coaches who have brought me here,” she said. “I’m so, so happy.”

Kai Baily thanked his many supporters as well, singling out his teammates and coaches for “helping make my dream come true to play baseball at the next level. I’m blessed to be in the place I’m in.”

Pezzy Morales thanked his parents and his older brother, Anthony, for being “the best support system anyone can have.”
“I’d like thank the coaches who have helped me make me not only the soccer player I am today, but the man I am today,” he added.

Brooke Ziemak, who has participated in both track and field and varsity cheerleading during her years at Niceville, thanked both her cheer and throwing coaches for their unwavering assistance.

“I wouldn’t be here without the support of everyone in this room,” she said. “I could not have asked for a better support system to push me through like four practices a day.”

Raiden Lafortune, who switched from baseball to track and field last year, explained that while he had his doubts at first, taking up the javelin was the best decision he had ever made. “I’d like to congratulate all of the athletes who are signing today,” he said. “It was a long and difficult journey, but we made it.”

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