Manatee moving on to state finals; Palmetto falls short

Two prep football state semifinals in one night represent glory days revisited

jlembo@bradenton.comDecember 9, 2011 

Game updates: Manatee outlasted Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer 19-14 to advance to the state final. Palmetto fell short, losing 35-27 to Miami Norland.

Manatee will face Jacksonville First Coast in the 7A state final at 7:06 p.m.next Friday.

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Welcome back to the glory days. Welcome back to the days when Manatee County ruled the world of high school football.

Welcome to the story you’ll be able to tell years after tonight’s games have ended.

There is truth in numbers, so tonight’s story reads like this:

Four teams. Two games. One county.

Our county.

Manatee hosts Palm Beach Dwyer in a Class 7A state semifinal.

Just over the Manatee River, regardless of which bridge you take to get there, Palmetto hosts Miami Norland in a Class 5A state semifinal.

This is as big as is it gets, folks.

Now that the state championship games are played at a neutral site, the best a team can do is play host to a final-four game.

And the best a county can do is play host to more than one of them.

Manatee County, for all of its expansion and population boom, still ripples with small-town charm and is home to just six public high schools. This isn’t Hillsborough County or Dade County or Pinellas County. We don’t get dozens of shots at this.

Tonight is special. Two of our schools are playing home to two of the biggest games in the state.

“It’s a feeling you don’t get very often,” Palmetto athletic director Kenny Ansbro said. “It’s kind of like falling in love.”

This sort of simultaneous, we’re-all-in-this-together fervor hasn’t hit the county since Dec. 20, 1985, the night Manatee and Southeast hosted state championship games. The Hurricanes blasted Woodham 50-22, while the Seminoles lost to Escambia and star running back Emmitt Smith, 27-7.

But the real champion that night was Bradenton, the only city other than Pensacola in 1984, to host two state football finals in the same season.

State finals were moved to neutral sites in ’89, and Bradenton tried staging sequels to that magical night in December when the Canes and Noles made the final four in 1993 and ’94. But the Canes played both of those semifinals on the road, and Southeast, in the midst of winning consecutive championships, was a visitor in ’93 and a host in ’94.

So this is the biggest night of football this county has seen in 26 years, and it’s a victory for today’s players, for today’s fans, who typically hear from purists how much better everything was back then.

And maybe things were better back then. Maybe each school’s talent pool was thicker and the bleachers were fuller when there were fewer programs sharing the pie.

But history tells us things haven’t been this good in nearly three decades -- Manatee and Palmetto, each a step away from playing for a state championship and each trying to take that step at home.

It’s a special moment for each school. The Canes have re-established themselves a national power, a revival stoked by beating Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas in a state semifinal in ’09 and winning three consecutive regional championships.

The Tigers, winners of the county’s first football state championship in 1975, haven’t been this far since 1986, when they lost to Jacksonville Bolles in the 2A state final.

Ansbro’s brother, Butch Stancil, was a fullback and quarterback on the ’86 team.

“I still remember the whole atmosphere,” Ansbro said. “And I may be a little prejudiced toward this place, but it’s due. We’re due to have some positive feelings around here.”

Palmetto athletics have had their share of highs over the years. The boys soccer team became the county’s first public school to reach the sport’s state final four in 2009 and duplicated the feat the next year, and the volleyball team (’86), girls track and field and cross country teams (’90), baseball team (’94) and girls basketball team (’96) have won state championships since ’86.

But it’s a little different now that the Palmetto finds itself in the thick of Manatee County’s football hysteria.

“This is a special feeling,” Ansbro said.

It’s a feeling that will resonate through two towns and one county tonight, and it may not be over: If the Tigers and Canes win tonight, they play for state championships next Friday at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.

Palmetto would kick off at 5 p.m., Manatee at 7.

But that’s a maybe. Let’s savor tonight, savor the fact that Manatee County will play host to two of the biggest games in the state.

It’s living history. And even if it’s just for one night, the glory days are here again.

John Lembo, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-2097.

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