BRADENTON — Manatee’s football team broke practice Thursday in the friendly confines of sun-splashed Hawkins Stadium, a venerable building that will not see another varsity football game until the first Friday in November.
By that time, the Hurricanes could be either gearing up for another playoff run or wondering what could have been.
It all depends on how they fare on the road.
Manatee jumps on a bus tonight and heads to the Ram Bowl to face Riverview in a pivotal Class 5A-District 10 game dripping with postseason and championship implications. And the Canes won’t be the only local team needing to have success out of town.
Palmetto visits Port Charlotte and Lakewood Ranch goes to Punta Gorda to face Charlotte in a pair of huge Class 4A-District 11 games, while Bayshore hopes to keep its scant playoff hopes alive in Englewood against Class 3A-District 10 foe, Lemon Bay.
Bradenton Christian, in the thick of the tightly bunched Class 1B-District 6 chase, heads to Naples to play the First Baptist Academy Lions, and Cardinal Mooney tries to win its first Class 2B-District 5 game at Tampa Catholic.
The Canes have tasted plenty of success on the road, having not lost a regular season road game since Halloween night in 2008 in Venice, and adjusted fine to the 1,500-mile trek they took to Pennsylvania to open this season against Woodland Hills.
“It helps if you’ve got good players,” said Manatee coach Joe Kinnan, whose Canes are 6-0 overall and 1-0 in district play. “I think sometimes on the road, you have a tendency to stay focused longer. We’ve got them for a longer period of time — they’re in the bus, they’re there. So it’s a little bit different.”
It’s a must-win game for Palmetto, which is 0-1 in the four-team district. Coach Dave Marino would rather his young team, which has been beset by a number of injuries, focus on that rather than the 52-mile trip to Pirates Cove.
“You’ve got to win or go home — it’s that simple,” he said. “Each week presents a new set of challenges, and traveling further, that’s a challenge for us.”
And not the only one — kickoff for the Tigers-Pirates game is 7 p.m. instead of 7:30, which can alter the time of departure as well as the pregame meal, which is a staple for prep football teams.
“That’s another difference,” Marino said, “that breaks you out of your routine.”
Allan Gerber, whose BCS Panthers are entrenched in a three-way tie for second place in the district and a game behind first place Fort Myers Evangelical, schedules away games during the spring and Kickoff Classic in order to help his players adjust to life away from home.
“It gets our parents and kids in that mode that when we’re on the road, the kids are going to do this, this and this,” he said. “It’s important.
“We want to make sure the kids are worried about the games, and want to keep the routine as similar as possible to eliminate (those distractions).”
With a handful of weeks left, this is the most important part of each team’s schedule, whether home or on the road.
That’s what each coach hopes his players understand heading into action tonight.
“The next two weeks,” Kinnan said, “will determine the district champion.”