It all seemed certain as the football team and their fans traveled home from last year's 40-0 victory over First Coast High School at the FHSAA 7A State Championship: an easy regular season, a few rounds of semi-difficult playoff games and a trip to Orlando for States.
This confidence was re-enforced by an undefeated season. Newspapers compared Manatee to college teams, and they resembled one. Playing during primetime on ESPN, hosting a charity game for the Wounded Warriors foundation, featuring special uniforms, and sporting a freshly painted pink Manatee M for the Pink Out Breast Cancer game, the entire football team was a magnet of press and a machine of perfection.
Newspapers called them "unbeatable," and ranking systems considered the team the best in the nation. There was just one familiar roadblock on the path to a perfect season: St. Thomas Aquinas. Just like our usually flawless, top-ranked defense, the roadblock held.
Playing the best ranked team in the nation is no small feat for anyone, but for St. Thomas, it was personal. In 2009, the situation was exactly the opposite of this year. Manatee was the underdog, playing the No. 1-ranked St. Thomas Aquinas at home in the state semi-finals. In a shocking turn of events, the Hurricanes emerged victorious.
Manatee students stormed the field as St. Thomas fans left quietly, all in disbelief. Though they went on to lose in the state finals to Plant High School, Manatee was put on the map as one of Florida's best football teams for what was arguably the first time since the 1980s.
The next year, Manatee traveled to Fort Lauderdale to battle the Raiders, who we had played before and beat, this time losing not only the game, but their bid to states. The next year, Manatee did not lose a single game in Florida, though they did not play St. Thomas. The outcome was a complete domination of First Coast at the State Championship in Orlando.
This year, although the Hurricanes were a success in every aspect of their game, they could not beat St. Thomas Aquinas. This came as a great surprise and an even greater letdown to the school, especially the senior class. After four years full of awards, titles and accomplishments, ending a class career with a loss to an old rival was heartbreaking.
"I was mad and disappointed," said senior and defensive end Blake Keller. "We all were, but we never gave up. The bus ride home was pretty quiet; then we started talking about the good times, the last four years, when we got into town. We weren't blaming anyone; losing is a team effort. We all made mistakes."
"I was thinking, 'we will probably win this. We're favored to win, we should win. We're ready.' We were pumped up," said Jonathan Hernandez, senior and punter. "But we got jumpy, and we didn't execute well."
The senior players, though disappointed, are not angry about the loss. Though another state title would have been great, they understand that even one is hard to come by. Cord Sandberg, senior and quarterback, was adamant on this fact.
"One game doesn't define four years of playing. It was a tough way to end our high school career, but I'm extremely proud of what myself and the senior class accomplished," he said. "Teams like this are rare to be a part of and special."