DREAM SEASON DASHED | Stunning upset stops Manatee short of two titles

jlembo@bradenton.comDecember 8, 2012 

FORT LAUDERDALE -- Their eyes were red, their hearts were broken, and their season was over.

As the last few seconds melted off the clock and a handful of championships slipped free of their grasp, the Manatee Hurricanes slowly made their way off the visitors sideline at Brian Piccolo Stadium on Friday night and quietly made their way through the postgame handshake.

Then they were silent as coach Joe Kinnan addressed his team one last time.

This one hurt.

Manatee's special fall came to an abrupt end Friday night, when the Hurricanes lost 35-18 to Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas in a Class 7A state semifinal.

The 25-game winning streak was gone. The shot to defend their state championship was gone. And the chance to win the program's first national championship was gone, as well.

Ranked No. 1 nationally by ESPN, MaxPreps and USA Today, Manatee (13-1) will be

home next Friday while the Raiders (12-2), the last Florida team to beat the Canes back in 2010, will look to win their seventh state championship.

"We got outplayed in every facet of the game -- offense, defense, kicking game, coaching," Kinnan said. "There was nothing we did that was better than what they did (Friday). Obviously, they played a lot better than we did."

It was reminiscent of the 2009 semifinal, when Manatee stopped Aquinas in its quest to win a national title. This time, the Raiders played the role of underdog and played it to near-perfection.

"Everything that we needed to happen, happened," said Raiders coach Rocco Casullo. "We did get ahead of them, the defense stuck to their assignments. ... Our kids did a fabulous job."

Manatee jumped to a 3-0 lead with 6:10 to go in the first quarter but fell behind for the first time since Week 1 when Fred Coppet's 7-yard touchdown run armed Aquinas with a 7-3 edge three minutes later.

The Hurricanes looked to seize momentum late in the first quarter when Blake Keller sacked Aquinas quarterback John O'Korn, scooped O'Korn's fumble and returned it to Aquinas' 20.

Manatee got the ball to the 11 before consecutive false-start penalties backed the Hurricanes up 10 yards. Greg Moss' 35-yard field goal attempt went wide, and Aquinas took a 14-3 lead into the half on the strength of O'Korn's 3-yard touchdown run.

"We took the opening kickoff, marched down there and settled for a field goal. Can't do that. We've got to get a touchdown," Kinnan said. "We get down there another time and end up getting two penalties in a row and miss a field goal. We can't do that."

Aquinas totaled 300 yards of rushing thanks to Coppet (141 yards) and Mardre London (106 yards, two fourth-quarter touchdowns).

"We couldn't tackle them," Kinnan said.

The Hurricanes, who averaged closed to 52 points per game this year and more than 57 in three playoff games, were limited to their lowest point total since scoring 16 during last season's Week 3 loss to New Jersey's Don Bosco Prep.

"Defensively, we just said, 'Stick to the game plan and don't give up any big plays,'" Casullo said. "And they did that."

"Give them credit -- they're a good team," Manatee quarterback Cord Sandberg said. "We had an opportunity do things, a couple of false starts. ... It's tough.

"Keller made a great play and we've got to capitalize on that. It's a game of momentum."

Trevon Walters, Manatee's leading rusher this year, ran for 20 yards on his first carry but twisted his injured ankle on the play. He finished with 19 yards on four carries.

Sandberg was 20-of-36 for 218 yards and a touchdown, while freshman Jonnie Lang, playing in Walters' absence, ran for a score and caught a two-point conversion.

"That was the one highlight," Kinnan said of Lang.

It was the final game for Sandberg and three-fourths of Manatee's tight-knit defensive line -- Keller, Marquis Dawsey and Derrick Calloway -- and other guys such as lineman Thor Miller and wide receiver Ja Juan Pollock, who hauled in a touchdown.

"A lot of things kind of went wrong," said Sandberg, whose only two losses in his career to Florida schools came against Aquinas. "They had a great game plan and they out-executed us.

"This is how my sophomore season ended, and this feels the same. This was my last game as a Hurricane and maybe my last football game ever. So it's tough."

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