BRADENTON -- It's one thing to earn expectations.
It's another to meet them.
The Fort Pierce Central Cobras have done both.
"They've done a great job," said coach Josh Shaffer. "Our goal this year was to get back to where we were last year."
They'll be there Friday at Lawnwood Stadium, when the Cobras (11-0) host Manatee for the Class 7A-Region 3 championship. It's a rematch of last year's game, which the Hurricanes won en route to clinching the program's fifth state championship.
Fort Pierce Central was a bit of an unknown last season, a young team led by a young coach who was named to the position during the spring. That equation resulted in the program's first regional final berth since 1994.
This year's Cobras, however, returned 17 starters. And they've played like it, jumping to No. 3 in the Class 7A state poll and outscoring teams 396-97.
They were the only team to beat Vero Beach, which reached the second round of the Class 8A playoffs, during the regular season, and have scored 34 points or more for in seven straight games.
"Their confidence level has been high," said Shaffer, 20-2 in two seasons as the Cobras' coach. "As a coach, you have your normal worries about your opponents from week to week.
"But they were confident. It's not a cockiness, just a quiet confidence."
The engineer of Shaffer's no-huddle pistol offense is junior quarterback Sam Vaughn, who has completed more than 63 percent of his passes (133 for 209) for 1,859 yards, 21 touchdowns and six interceptions.
His top targets are Jameel Jackson (33 catches, 332 yards), J.J. Stevens (29 catches, 615 yards) and Josh Knight (27
catches, 380 yards).
Knight has committed to Marshall while Jackson has earned offers from schools such as Bowling Green and Western Kentucky, according to Rivals.
Leading the ground game is Marcus Levy, a Cincinnati commit who leads the Cobras in attempts (103), rushing yards (787) and touchdowns (16) despite appearing in just eight games. The senior has averaged 7.2 yards in 334 career attempts.
All this work has Fort Pierce Central matched up again with the Hurricanes, who defeated the Cobras 13-10 last year in Bradenton. It was Manatee's slimmest margin of victory in the postseason.
Friday's winner meets either Lauderdale Lakes Boyd Anderson or Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas in a Class 7A state final four.
"They're the real deal," Shaffer said of the Hurricanes, ranked No.1 nationally by ESPN, MaxPreps and USA Today. "They're a different team than last year, but they're still the real deal. They still have that front four defensively, and I think (quarterback) Cord (Sandberg) is a better quarterback this year than he was last year. Some of the throws he was missing last year, he's making this year.
"The No.1 team in the country is coming to our field, and that's something not everyone gets to have. (The Cobras) are excited, but we put on the film and see Manatee, and we have a lot of respect for that team."