Commentary | Winning at St. Thomas Aquinas next milestone ahead of Manatee

December 7, 2012 

BRADENTON

For the past two seasons, Manatee High's football team has been checking off one blank box after another.

First perfect regular season in two decades. Check.

State championship in Joe Kinnan's second stint on the sidelines. Check.

Play a pair of games out of state. Check.

Make the program look good on ESPN. Check.

Looming in the future are two more impressive baubles: a second consecutive state title and, with it, almost assuredly a national title.

And if they hope to do it, the Hurricanes must check off another box tonight with a win at Brian Piccolo Stadium.

The fifth state semifinal meeting between Manatee and Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas is on the Raiders' turf. And though the sample size is tiny -- the Hurricanes have played there twice -- it's an arena that doesn't conjure warm and cozy feelings for the denizens of Manatee's expansive fan club.

There was the nightmarish finish in 2006, when Manatee vaulted to a 15-0 lead at the half only to lose 36-29 in double overtime.

If Kinnan has been more livid after a loss since his return to coaching in '05, I haven't seen it.

The 2010 meeting there wasn't nearly as close -- Aquinas cruised past the Hurricanes 31-7. Manatee was a battered bunch that night, as running back Mike Blakely was hobbled by ankle injuries, interior defensive lineman Drakkar Wilson was fresh from knee surgery, and another lineman, Quinton Pompey, was out with a ligament tear.

And Aquinas, eventually crowned prep national champion by ESPN, wasn't going to lose twice in two years to the Canes following

The Great Upset of 2009.

This isn't to say Manatee can't handle long trips. The Canes had no trouble with last week's drive to Fort Pierce, and they opened the 2010 campaign flying to Pittsburgh and scoring a convincing win over a solid Woodland Hills team in Woodland Hills' cavernous home stadium.

It's just fitting that the Hurricanes have to accomplish something they have never done in order to accomplish something else they haven't done: win consecutive state championships.

Keep in mind this is the state semifinal. All a win tonight guarantees for Manatee or Aquinas is a trip next week to Orlando to play either Tallahassee Lincoln or Kissimmee Osceola.

But the gauntlet has been thrown, and Manatee has to beat Aquinas at Aquinas for the first time in team history.

It's something that has never been done, and it's something that can add even more luster to what has been another golden age for Canes football.

Come Saturday, we'll know if this blank box, one of the biggest of all, will finally get checked.

John Lembo, sports writer, can be reached at 745-7080. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLembo1878.

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