Prep football | Manatee Hurricanes reflect on season's sudden end

Dominant no more, Manatee reflects, looks ahead

jlembo@bradenton.comDecember 9, 2012 

— The emotional coach and emotional player embraced Friday night.

Steve Gulash, who helped shape Manatee's defensive line into one of the country's best, wrapped his arms around Marquis Dawsey, a four-year starter at defensive end, and whispered in his ear.

"I just told him I loved him," said Gulash, his eyes reddened with tears.

The Hurricanes lost 35-18 to Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas during Friday's Class 7A state semifinal. And while it wasn't the first time and won't be the last that Manatee's season ends in defeat, the disappointment and pain was more palpable than in years past.

First, it marked the end of a special senior class that included guys like Dawsey, who helped the Canes win four Region 3 titles, reach a pair of state finals and win the program's fifth state championship in 2011.

It marked the end for quarterback Cord Sandberg, 39-4 in three seasons and the loser of just one game inside Hawkins Stadium.

It marked the end for Thor Miller, the lone senior on Manatee's offensive line, and guys like Blake Keller and Derrick Calloway, who along with Dawsey and junior Demarcus Christmas, formed a mighty line that was the emotional center of the Hur

ricanes' defense for the past two years.

"When you get to the end of that game, and you see how happy (the Raiders) are, and you know all year you've been that way," Gulash said, "at one point, you have to face loss. ... It's hard. Sometimes, I want to quit coaching because of it, because it comes to an end."

That may have been the toughest part to stomach: As great and dominant as this team was throughout the season, these Hurricanes will never be included in the same echelon with Manatee's title teams of 1983, '85, '89, '92 and 2011.

History will show that the 2012 Manatee Hurricanes finished 13-1 and a step short of playing for a state championship.

"Since the spring, we've been ranked No. 1 in the nation," coach Joe Kinnan said. "It's disappointing to go out in this fashion, on the road, and not play as good as what we were capable of doing. We played some common opponents (as Aquinas), and the video we saw of them, they played far and away their best game of the year (Friday). We played our worst. But like I said, you have to give them the credit. They had a lot to do with it."

MaxPreps named Manatee its preseason No. 1 on June 1, and, as the season progressed, the Hurricanes earned the same ranking from ESPN and USA Today.

They opened the season with a 35-point win over Miramar on ESPN2 and recorded impressive wins over Class 6A Miami Central and Class 8A Weston Cypress Bay, a pair of teams playing for state titles next week.

The Hurricanes routed one opponent after another, rolled to another district title and outscored their first three postseason opponents 172-19.

But all it took was one game for all of it to end.

"(Aquinas) was basically the far superior team (Friday)," Kinnan said. "We couldn't cover their receivers. ... We couldn't get them off the field during third down. ... Their defensive line whipped our offensive line, their offensive line whipped our defensive line."

"It's a crazy game. They're a good team," Sandberg said. "Anything can happen, and they out-executed us tonight. It's tough."

Manatee will sport a different look next season. Sandberg, for one, will either be playing football at Mississippi State or preparing himself for a pro baseball career, meaning one of three returning quarterbacks -- Brodrick Yancy and Chase Richardson, who will be seniors, and Josh Meyer, who will be a junior -- will lead the offense.

Meyer rushed for 237 yards, threw for 186 and had a hand in six touchdowns this season, while Yancy was used mostly as a receiver and had 29 catches.

Calloway, Dawsey and Keller will be gone, leaving Christmas, a Florida State commit who had nine sacks this season. The group was the most emotional as they exchanged good-byes Friday.

"I knew they gave everything. They played bigger than what they should have been," Gulash said. "Never once did they did ever say they were the best. They just worked hard every day. They never once said they were the best defensive line -- everybody else did."

Manatee loses receiver Ja Juan Pollock (39 catches, 12 touchdowns), but returns Marquel Hines (44 catches, nine touchdowns), and Yancy, if either Richardson or Meyer take over the quarterbacking reins.

Miller is gone up front, but linemen Kyle Mauk, Dylan Beauchamp, Jake Stickler and Michael Galati will be seniors entering their third season as starters.

Brooks Larkin, who was used regularly on the line this fall, will be a senior as well.

And the Canes should be strong in the backfield. Junior Trevon Walters, limited to just four carries Friday after reinjuring his ankle, paced the team in rushing yards (1,119) and touchdowns (20), and freshman Johnnie Lang was impressive filling in for Walters during the playoffs.

Linebacker Arin Pruitt, who suffered an arm injury early in the first quarter Friday, will be a senior. So will defensive back Greg Reaves, who filled in after Manatee lost senior co-captain Willie Smith to an injury.

"Obviously, we're going to have fill a lot of holes," Kinnan said. "In the offseason, we've got to continue to get bigger and stronger. We've got a good nucleus back on offense, and we've got some good players back on defense."

On Friday, however, all the Hurricanes could do was reflect.

"I'm proud to have been a part of this program," Sandberg said. "We had a great senior class, and I'm just proud of everybody in it."

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