Prep football | Manatee Hurricanes enter postseason 15-1 in home playoff games since 2005

jlembo@bradenton.comNovember 15, 2013 

BRADENTON -- Chalk it up to mystique.

Or to the ghosts of great teams gone by.

Or to the raucous home side of the stadium, usually filled to capacity when the prep football season spills into the middle of November.

"Is it Joe (Kinnan)? Probably. Is it the coaches? Probably. Or is it flat out something to do with just walking out on to that field?" said Steve Gulash, Manatee's defensive line coach. "Who the (heck) knows. But it's something."

Something has a way of going the Hurricanes' way at Hawkins Stadium, their venerable home located smack dab in the middle of a neighborhood and right across the street from a church.

To wit, see how Manatee has fared in the playoffs since 2005, when Kinnan began his second stint as head coach. The Hurricanes are 15-1 and haven't lost since the '05 Class 5A state semifinal against Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas.

Foes from near (Venice) and far (Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer) have made their way to Bradenton since, only to leave knowing that equipment was to be handed in the next day.

Vero Beach will try to take a crack at Manatee's hometown magic Friday night in a Class 8A-Region 2 quarterfinal, attempting to do what no team has been able to do in years: win a region playoff game at Joe Kinnan Field at Hawkins Stadium.

"It's definitely fun running the tunnel and seeing all your fans. It's a huge stadium," said Kyle Mauk, one of Manatee's senior offensive linemen.

Mauk was an eighth-grader when Manatee pulled off one of its more memorable Hawkins Stadium moments, a 28-20 win over St. Thomas Aquinas, at the time ranked No. 1 in the nation and the owner of a 37-game winning streak, in a 2009 Class 5A state semifinal.

"That was the coolest thing ever. That was so cool," said Mauk, who was at the game. "It's just high energy and the fans are always high energy."

Gulash, whose father and uncles played at Manatee, grew up a few blocks from Hawkins Stadium and remembered its wooden bleachers. His father's job forced the family to move quite a bit, and Gulash played his first three years of high school football inside Fort Pierce Central's Lawnwood Stadium before returning to Manatee for the Hurricanes' state championship season of 1992.

"The stands are full, and the band, and you're looking around and, 'It's just like my dad told me,'" Gulash said. "He told me it was crazy back then. ... It's really an amazing place."

A landscaper who works on Manatee's fields when he isn't working with the defensive linemen, Gulash feels it even on Saturdays and Sundays, when the stands are sidelines are barren.

"When you stop and look around, and you see the Davis Building, and you see Joe's name on the field," he said, "it's a very different feeling, even when you're all by yourself. It's a weird thing. I guess you have to be weird like me to understand it."

Running back Trevon Walters grew up in Alabama and heard all about Manatee's tradition and Hawkins Stadium's mystique before he felt it. That changed during Labor Day Weekend 2012, when Manatee opened the season on a broiling Sunday afternoon against Miramar in a game broadcast live on ESPN.

No, it wasn't a playoff game. But the loud crowd and buzz around the Hurricanes, who at the time owned the nation's No. 1 ranking on MaxPreps, reminded Walters that his new home was different than his old one.

"The crowds (back home) probably had 150 people in the stands. You get out here and it's like 2,000 people," Walters said. "It's very comfortable. We've got our fans cheering for us and getting the crowd pumped up, so it's very big to play at Hawkins Stadium because we have the support.

"It's just different playing here."

Gulash remembers coming back as coach and hearing a pregame address from the legendary Eddie Shannon.

"I had chills," Gulash said, "and tears in my eyes."

Hawkins Stadium is where Manatee won the 1985 Class 5A state title before the championship game was moved to a neutral site in '89; where it turned away Dwyer and its terrific quarterback, Faton Bouta, in the 2011 Class 7A state semifinals; and where Manatee began forging a path back into the national limelight.

Kinnan said he believes it has a lot do with routine. Home games allow players to stick to their pregame schedule without a long bus ride messing with anything.

He also credits the large fan base that fills the place, and, of course, the talent on the field.

Yeah, all that stuff matters. But when it comes to the Hurricanes playing well at Hawkins Stadium, there might be something else at play, too.

"Manatee Magic," Kinnan said.

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