BRADENTON -- As they prepare for their first playoff road game in two years, the Manatee Hurricanes may have lost another Division I-caliber player.
Defensive back Willie Smith, a co-captain and Florida International commit, will have an MRI on Monday after suffering a knee injury during Friday's 56-7 region semifinal win over Venice.
But Manatee head coach Joe Kinnan said the team is preparing for Friday's Class 7A-Region 3 football final at Fort Pierce Central with the assumption Smith won't be available.
"It doesn't look good," Kinnan said Saturday. "That's part of the game, and it's unfortunate."
Fresh off defeating Venice for the sixth time in three seasons, Manatee (12-0) is in a region final for the fourth straight year. The Hurricanes will take the long trip Friday to play the Cobras (11-0) in a rematch of last year's region championship game.
It will be the Hurricanes' first postseason game in an opponent's stadium since the 2010 Class 5A semifinal at Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas.
Manatee was home throughout the playoffs last year with the exception of the state championship game, which was played at the Florida Citrus Bowl. And Friday's winner will be on the road for the Class 7A state semifinal, as well. That's because the Region 4 champion, either Aquinas or Lauderdale Lakes Boyd Anderson, was designated the host before
the season began.
"You've got play every game like it's your last because it could be," said Manatee quarterback Cord Sandberg, a senior who lost one game at home during his career. "We're going to be road warriors from here on out, and I'm hoping we can get the job done."
Fort Pierce Central ended the season ranked third in the state in Class 7A behind Manatee and Jacksonville First Coast. The Cobras have outscored opponents 396-97 this season and scored an impressive win Sept. 27 over Vero Beach, a Class 8A team that won the District 8 title and made the second round of the playoffs.
The Cobras played Manatee closer than any other playoff opponent last year, losing 13-10 in Bradenton.
"Absolutely," Kinnan said when asked if he was expecting another tight game. "The last time they lost was to us. They've dispatched everyone they've played this year, including a couple of 8A schools."
Smith was defending a tipped pass in the end zone Friday during the third quarter when the injury occurred. He was on the ground for about two minutes before Manatee's trainers helped him walk off the field, and Smith was on crutches and wearing a knee brace during the Hurricanes' postgame huddle.
"It was kind of a fluke thing," Kinnan said. "He broke over there and get got tangled up with everyone else."
Smith has a team-best four interceptions for Manatee but missed the final two games of the regular season with a pulled hamstring. Greg Reaves, a junior, started in his place and had an interception in a game against Sarasota that clinched the District 10 title for Manatee.
"The good thing is Greg has some experience," Kinnan said, "and has done a good job. And we have other kids we can put in there, too."
The Hurricanes lost running back/wide receiver Anthony Lauro to knee surgery earlier this season. Lauro has since committed to the University of Akron.