BRADENTON — Before they became two of the most experienced pieces on the most experienced unit of Manatee's football team, Jake Stickler and Michael Galati were junior varsity players armed with nothing but potential.
They dreamed of Friday nights at Hawkins Stadium, deep playoff runs and perhaps hanging another state championship year on the scoreboard.
"I knew it was going to be a bright future," Galati said.
Since then, they've spent the past three years making it all come true.
They're experienced, big and athletic. But perhaps the biggest strength permeating through Manatee's offensive line -- composed of tackles Stickler and Brooks Larkin, center Kyle Mauk and guards Galati and Dylan Beauchamp -- is camaraderie.
A line that plays together wins together and such is the case for the Hurricanes' big seniors up front, who lead Manatee into Friday's Class 8A-Region 2 semifinal against Fort Pierce Central.
"This is where it starts; it starts up front with those guys," Manatee coach Joe Kinnan said. "We've got great experience, and they're seniors. People don't realize it, but that makes a big difference."
Stickler (6-foot-5, 265 pounds), Galati (6-2, 287) and Mauk (6-1, 244) are three-year starters who won a state title together in 2011. Stickler and Galati were JV teammates, while Mauk jumped from freshman to the varsity team.
Beauchamp (6-0, 270) is a two-year starter. And Larkin (6-2, 288) started six games last season, but was a two-year starter at Out-of-Door Academy before transferring.
"We already knew how we played together, already knew we gelled.
So kind of coming into it, we just had to tune up everything we were doing last year," said Stickler, whose dad, Sean, and uncle, Eric, were linemen on Manatee's 1985 state title team. "There's some times where I'll go, 'Hey, Brooks,' and he'll go, 'Yeah.' We don't even have to say anything about what we're going to do and the plays we're going to run. We just know each other so well, and we can basically know what each other is doing."
Despite losing quarterback Cord Sandberg and three players from a nationally renowned defensive line, Manatee was never thought to be in a rebuilding mode for 2013. And at 11-0 and ranked No. 1 in the state in Class 8A, the Hurricanes sure haven't played that way.
But they were breaking in a new quarterback in Josh Meyer. And with Missouri-bound Trevon Walters fronting the running game, Manatee's offense has looked different than the one that spent the last three years relying so heavily on Sandberg's left arm.
To wit, Manatee is averaging 45 carries and 15 passes per game. Last year's team ran 35 times per game and threw more than 21 times.
The line, however, hasn't had a hard time adjusting. Last week, it helped Walters set a program record with 43 carries.
"They just told me they had me and Trevon's back," said Meyer, who remembered watching how well the line played last year while he was a backup. "When I played in Oklahoma, we didn't have this O-line. I was used to freaking out. So I was like, 'Yeah, next year, I'm set.'
"It's amazing having them."
Stickler (Georgia Tech), Galati (USF) and Mauk (The Citadel) have made Division I commitments. Larkin is looking into West Point, and Beauchamp is getting interest from a number of Division II programs, Kinnan said.
First, however, the linemen have to concern themselves with the eighth-ranked Cobras, whose defensive line is bookended by Rashawn Shaw (6-3, 245), who has committed to Louisville and has 11 sacks in nine games, and Sharieff Rhaheed (6-4, 210), who has 20 Division I offers, including one from Alabama and South Carolina, according to Rivals.
"This team runs a lot of different looks, and if you're inexperienced and not very good, as we've seen on video, a lot of people just run by them," Kinnan said of the Cobras. "They've made a lot of mental mistakes, people (the Cobras) have played against. We expect our kids, they're going to block the right people and they're going to have a pretty good chance."
The players are quick to credit line coach Steve Peebles, a lineman and captain on Manatee's first state title team in 1983.
"If he needs to be stern, he can be stern," said Galati, whose cousin, Nick, played right guard on Manatee's Class 5A state final, "and that's a good way for the O-line can work because we're all a bunch of goofballs. That's the kind of coach we need."
Thus far, the line has given Manatee the play it needs, thanks in part to the tight-knit seniors who make it up.
"We can joke around with each other, keep it real relaxed and just do our jobs," Galati said. "We understand each other -- it's the main thing."