Before the Manatee Hurricanes took a snap, MaxPreps annointed them the best high school football team in the country.
It's a title they lived up to through most of the fall.
Looking to win consecutive state championships and a national title for the first time, Manatee stormed through the regular season, beginning with a 41-6 victory over Miramar on Sept. 2 in a game broadcast live on ESPN2.
The Hurricanes wrapped their second 10-0 regular season in three years, outscoring teams 502-122 en route to winning a district championship. In the interim, ESPN and USA Today also put Manatee atop their national rankings, while Rivals kept them in the top three for most of the year.
"The kids are focused. It doesn't matter who we're playing, we're coming out ready to play," coach Joe Kinnan said. "If they're not real good, we're not (playing
down to their level), where other years we've had that. "This is how you've got to do it -- you've got to focus. And I really think that's a credit to our senior leadership."
The storm continued into the playoffs, with the Hurricanes triggering a running clock against St. Petersburg Northeast (65-12), Venice (56-7) and Fort Pierce Central (51-0) to clinch their fourth consecutive regional title and 14th overall.
"We've really improved since the beginning of the year," defensive end Blake Keller after the win at Fort Pierce. "Spring, we didn't know how defense was going to be. We lost some key players. But a lot of people stepped up and now we're putting up goose eggs in the regional final."
That set up a classic clash in the Class 7A state semifinal -- Manatee heading to Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas for the right to play for the state championship.
It was the teams' fifth semifinal meeting since 2005, although this time, the Hurricanes were the favorites, and the Raiders were looking to end Manatee's quest to win a state and national championship.
Manatee entered the game with a 25-game winning streak and averaging 51.8 points per game.
Then, the roof fell in.
The Raiders dominated Manatee, winning 35-18. It was reminiscent of what happened in 2008, when the Hurricanes stunned Aquians, then the top-ranked team in the nation, in a Class 5A state semifinal.
This time, the Canes tasted disappointment.
"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."
Aquinas finished the job the following week, beating Tallahassee Lincoln to win the Class 7A state championship.
Manatee, meanwhile, bid farewell to a number of seniors, including quarterback Cord Sandberg, who totaled nearly 10,000 yards offense in three years and signed with Mississippi State before being drafted Thursday by the Philadelphia Phillies.
"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."
Keller (UCF), defensive lineman Derrick Calloway (USF), wide receiver/running back Anthony Lauro (Akron) and defensive back Willie Smith (FIU) signed with Division I schools, while defensive lineman Marquis Dawsey signed with Division II Ferris State, and offensive lineman Thor Miller signed with McNeese State of the Football Championship Subdivision.
The 2013 season will mark a new era for Manatee, and a new classification -- the Hurricanes have been bumped to Class 8A and will compete in District 7 with Palm Harbor University, Sarasota Riverview and St. Petersburg.
"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."
They are the champions II
Lakewood Ranch's boys golf team wasn't perfect this past fall.
But when the season was over, the Mustangs weren't complaining: For the second straight year, Lakewood Ranch went to the Class 2A state tournament and came home with the championship trophy.
"Flash in the pan is one time," said coach Dave Frantz after his Mustangs defeated Ponte Vedra by three strokes at Deer Island Golf and Lake Club in Tavres. "Two times is pretty darn good." Consider Frantz's Lakewood Ranch boys golf team pretty darn good. "It's still just as fun as the first time," said Danny Walker, who carded a team-best 152 at state and finished tied for 13th. "This is a fun tournament for us." Especially for Walker, who won an individual state title as a freshman in 2010 and has two team championship medals to go in the trophy case. A year after not losing a match, Lakewood Ranch was 127-8 in 2012.
But the Mustangs won big when they had to."It's pretty cool considering we have almost a completely different team other than me and Danny," said junior Ramsey Touchberry, who shot a 73 during the tournament's final day and was named the Herald All-Area Boys Golfer of the Year. "It means a lot, and it's a good ending to a season considering we didn't win everything like we did last year."
Other fall highlights:
Lakewood Ranch's volleyball team won its first region title, reaching the Class 6A state semifinals in Kissimmee.
Southeast and Palmetto made the region football playoffs, with the Tigers reaching the second round in Class 5A.
Saint Stephen's Ellie Berdusco, Cardinal Mooney's Matt O'Donnell and Lakewood Ranch's Danielle Valley all took home the gold in the 500-yard freestyle during the state swimming and diving championships in Orlando. Berdusco and O'Donnell competed in Class 1A, while Valley won hers in Class 2A.
Same ol' Tigers
Palmetto playing for a boys soccer championship has become something of a ritual.
This year, it happened again.
The Tigers headed over the Sunshine Skyway to Seminole Osceola on Jan. 25 and rolled past the Warriors 4-1 to claim the Class 3A-District 10 title, Palmetto's fifth straight.
"They do everything that you ask and they give you everything that they have," said coach Dustin Dahlquist. "I don't think as a coach you can ask any more from your players than for them to show up ready to work.
"I have zero complaints about these guys."
The county's only boys soccer program to make consecutive state final fours, the Tigers cruised past Tampa King 4-0 in a Region 3 quarterfinal to set up a semifinal date with Tampa Jesuit, a perennial state power.
"If you want a challenge, and you want a challenge early in the playoffs, then this is the perfect region to be in," Dahlquist said the night his Tigers blanked King, "because you're going to get one in Jesuit in every regional semifinal."
It was a challenge the Tigers met head on: Palmetto beat Jesuit 4-1 at Harllee Stadium and rode the wave right into the Region 3 championship game, where the Tigers recorded a 4-0 win over Immokalee to claim their third regional championship and trip to the final four.
"It's a privilege to represent this school," said Javis Paniagua, who dished out a pair of assists in the region final.
The win upped the Tigers' mark to 25-1-3 and had them two wins shy of a state championship.
That never came. Palmetto lost 3-1 to Plantation American Heritage in a 3A state semifinal, ending one of the best seasons in program history.
Despite the sour finish, there were highlights. Dahlquist was a nominee for Class 3A Coach of the Year, and Gregorio Calvillo was nominee for Player of the Year.
Calvillo set a school record with 43 goals and was named The Herald's All-Area Player of the Year, and his brother Pedro totaled 29 assists.
What will happen next season?
No one knows. But chances are the Tigers will be playing meaningful soccer games in January and February.
Mooney shoots for moon
Moments after Cardinal Mooney's boys basketball season ended with a loss in the Class 3A-Region 3 final, coach Stefan Gates summed the Cougars' campaign up perfectly: "It was a darn good year for Cardinal Mooney basketball."
The Cougars won 25 games and won the 21st annual Suncoast Holiday Classic by beating host Riverview in the championship, then came a game away from the state semifinals.
Oh, and they also had the area's -- and one of the country's -- best guards in Antonio Blakeney.
Standing at 6-foot-4 and weighing in at 170 pounds, Blakeney was a force for the Cougars, averaging 24.8 and 7.6 rebounds per game in leading Mooney to the Class 3A-District 10 title and region wins over St. Petersburg Shorecrest Prep (92-70) and St. Petersburg Catholic (55-51) to earn a spot in the Region 3 final for the third time in school history.
But Community School of Naples put an end to Mooney's dream, beating the Cougars 73-53.
Blakeney was limited to a season-low 15 points in the loss, and Mooney ended the year with a mark of 25-4.
Repeating that success will be difficult. Blakeney transferred to Oak Ridge High in Orlando in the spring, depriving the Cougars of one of the best hardwood talents the area has seen.
Other winter highlights:
Lakewood Ranch's freshman-laden girls basketball team defeated Palmetto in the Class 6A-District 12 final to win the program's first district championship. The Mustangs had four freshmen in their starting lineup.
Manatee defeated Palmetto 25-23 to clinch its 16th county wrestling title in 17 seasons.
Despite missing nearly two months with a knee injury, Lakewood Ranch senior Blake Riley-Hawkins qualified for the Class 2A state wrestling tournament, making him the first Mustangs wrestler to make three straight state tournaments. He finished fifth at 132 pounds.
Going out in style
Prior to this year's Class 3A state track and field championships in Jacksonville, Kristin Zarrella was already considered one of the area's greatest distance runners.
She was a key member of the Mustangs' cross-country team that sealed back-to-back state runner-up finishes and helped Lakewood Ranch's 3,200-meter relay team win a championship last spring.
But that didn't stop Zarrella from capping her brilliant career in style.
The Southern Miss-bound Zarrella won the 800 during this year's meet with a time of 2 minutes, 16.45 seconds, beating second-place Danielle Avery of Naples by nearly a second and a half.
"It's amazing," Zarrella said that day. "It's the best feeling in the world for a runner. It's what I've been going after for four years now, and I finally got it. It was my last race, and I had to win it."
Zarrella trailed Avery before passing her during the final 200 meters
"I figured I had done enough 200-meter sprints in practice these last four years," Zarrella said, "so I could give it one more strong finish."
Arms raised in jubilation, Zarrella crossed the finish line first during the final race of her career. Consequently, she was named the Herald All-Area Girls Track Athlete of the Year just a handful of months after winning the same honor for the cross country season.
Zarrella took 19th at the state cross country meet to lead the Mustangs to a fifth-place finish. Her performance was more crucial than ever considering Lakewood Ranch was without star runner Olivia Ortiz during the fall. A state cross country champ last season, Ortiz sustained a broken femur during last spring's Class 3A track meet and didn't return to running until this past track season.
"We wanted to run for her," Zarrella said of Ortiz, who returned to take ninth during this year's 3,200. "Just keep it going and keep a good tradition at Lakewood Ranch."
Thanks to runners such as Zarrella, Lakewood Ranch's track tradition has become the strongest in the area.
Tony Cummins had a feeling his Lakewood Ranch softball team was bound for big things this spring.
So he deliberately crafted a difficult non-district schedule. He scouted teams he had a hunch his girls would meet in the postseason.
And he didn't worry about the regular-season record.
By the end of the spring, the Mustangs made their coach look like a prophet, as Lakewood Ranch clinched a second straight trip to the Class 6A state final four.
"We had to decide do we want a glamorous record and go home early," Cummins said, "or do we battle against the best and go to states?"
Ranch chose the latter. The Mustangs lost nine games but were back in a state semifinal.
"I definitely think the tough schedule is a plus," said Taylor Newton, a four-year starter.
Powered by a strong senior class and a rough slate of opponents, the Mustangs cruised through the Region 3 playoffs, beginning with a 9-1 win over Tampa Sickles in a quarterfinal.
Next came Dover Strawberry Crest in a semifinal, which entered that round with a 24-2 mark and winners of 20 of its past 21.
Final score: Mustangs 5, Chargers 1.
Then in the region, Lakewood Ranch went up against New Porty Richey River Ridge, which was 28-1 and a winner of 17 straight.
Final score: Mustangs 8, River Ridge 3.
Once again, however, the Mustangs' season ended one stop too soon -- Lakewood Ranch lost 7-1 to Lake City Columbia in a state semifinal, ending the season with a record of 20-10-1.
Lake City Columbia won the state title the following day.
"It was a great season," Mustangs pitcher Amanda Rak said. "It feels great to be here with all these great teams, and we earned our way here."
Lakewood Ranch bid farewell to seven seniors, including four-year starters Newton and Jenn Trotter.
"My advice to anyone coming to states is to win," Newton said. "Don't get nervous and don't go up there hacking."
Other spring highlights:
Bayshore's softball team enjoyed a resurgence this spring as the Bruins, the fourth seed in the six-team Class 5A-District 12 tournament, rallied to reach a region final for the first time since 2004. Bayshore lost the championship game to Lake Wales, which went on to win the Class 5A state title.
Manatee's Cord Sandberg, a star at baseball and football, was drafted in the third round by the Philadelphia Phillies with the 89th overall pick. Given a choice between professional baseball or college football at Mississippi State, Sandberg chose baseball, and signed with the Phillies on Saturday.
Lakewood Ranch baseball player Brad Zunica decided to forgo his senior season of high school to enroll at the University of Miami. Zunica, the Herald All-Area Player of the Year, had already given the Hurricanes his verbal commitment. He heads to Coral Gables during the last week of August.
Months after undergoing surgery on both knees, Southeast weightlifter Gage Takacs won the Class 1A state title at 199 pounds. The junior had a combined lift of 670 pounds to defeat Bradford's Phillip James (645), the runner-up.
Saint Stephen's boys tennis team brought back some hardware from the Class 1A state tournament, where the Falcons finished tied for second. Saint Stephen's had 11 points, as did Winter Haven All Saints. Sagemont was the winner with 13.