NICEVILLE — Wes Nelson gathered his team behind their benches. In the aftermath of heartbreak the Niceville coach had a simple message to convey.

He told his boys there were no words he could say to lessen the pain the Eagles soccer team felt after falling to Fletcher 3-2 in the region finals Wednesday night at the Twin Oaks soccer fields, but they need not leave the field with their heads hung low.

Could they have played better? Maybe. Could they have played with any more effort? Not a chance.

“I truly believe you left it all on the field tonight,” Nelson told them. “There’s nothing more a coach could ask for.”

Niceville (23-2 overall) trailed the Senators 2-0 at halftime. Fletcher’s James Schaefer notched an early goal in the 10th minute with a header off a free kick, which seemed to disrupt the Eagles’ early defensive cohesion.

The Senators (22-1-2) capitalized once more with two minutes to play in the half, netting a deep goal on kick that arced just over the hand of leaping Eagles keeper Anthony Morales.

“You have to give Fletcher credit,” Nelson said. “They disrupted us and really got us out of the game in the first half. We never really put it together and dug ourselves a hole that we couldn’t quite get out of.”

In Niceville’s only other loss of the season, a 4-2 decision against Fort Walton Beach in mid November, the Eagles trailed 2-0 at half.

It’s incredibly difficult, Nelson said, to recover from those early lapses, though it did make for an entertaining second half.

The Eagles entered the second seemingly reinvigorated. Where in the first they had been bullied off the ball, in the second they were the aggressors, fighting for every inch of field.

In the 60th minute Brenden Sherwin put Niceville back in the game with a header that cut the deficit to 2-1.

After Schaefer made the Senators’ advantage two again in the 71st minute with a kick that rifled past a leaping Morales, Brendan Ernsberger, the hero of Friday’s semifinal victory with an overtime header, put a header in the back of the net to make it 3-2 in the 73rd minute.

“I thought the second half we really showed a lot of heart,” Nelson said. “Put ourselves in a position to win this game. We just didn’t do it.”

The Eagles last best chance came on a pair of throw ins shortly before time expired. Neither made the difference.

With the victory, Fletcher will play the winner of Melbourne-Sickles in the state semifinals Saturday.

Through three playoff games, Fletcher’s defense has proved strong but not impenetrable. Playing through the tournament as a district runner up, the Senators allowed one goal each to Oakleaf and Creekside during the first two rounds. Their offense, though, scored seven goals in those two games. They average 5.17 goals per game.

The loss Wednesday was Niceville’s first since mid November. The Eagles had won 21 straight.

Both of their prior playoff games were tight affairs. Niceville converted on an early goal in the second half of its region quarterfinal victory against Leon and needed an extra minute of overtime to send Chiles home early.

It was Niceville’s deepest playoff run since making it to the region finals and losing 3-2 to Atlantic Coast in 2016.

“We had a lot of success this year, a lot of things to build on,” Nelson said. “I do hate it for the seniors. We really had that goal of getting to that state championship and winning it this year, so falling short hurts.

“But if it didn’t hurt, why would we go out there and compete?”