BRADENTON -- It has been less than two years since the nation’s No. 1 team came to Hawkins Stadium.
During the winter of 2009, Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas arrived in Bradenton for a Class 5A state semifinal with Manatee -- and left on the tail end of a 28-20 decision, its top spot on the polls and 37-game winning streak both things of the past.
The best is back in town tonight, albeit a different best: New Jersey’s Don Bosco Prep is here for a 6 p.m. kickoff with the Hurricanes.
The Ironmen are good. They’ve won 36 straight. Their coach, Greg Toal, has lost 10 games in 13 years. USA Today and ESPN consider them the best in the country. They opened the season last week with a 28-point win over California’s Mission Viejo, a perennial national power.
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And that’s why Manatee wanted this game. Unlike that aforementioned matchup with Aquinas, when the winner went on to play for a state championship and the loser went home for the season, there is nothing much to lose tonight.
But there is plenty to gain.
Following last week’s win over Riverview, coach Joe Kinnan talked about being hardened for the run. And by the run, he meant the run to the Class 7A state championship game.
A win tonight over the Ironmen won’t get Manatee any closer to a December date at the Florida Citrus Bowl, but the game itself should aid Manatee’s quest.
“Once we will have played these two teams,” Kinnan said, referring to Bosco Prep and Maryland’s Our Lady of Good Counsel, Manatee’s opponent in Week 1, “we will have seen as talented a team as anybody we play. If we’re lucky enough to get in the playoffs and get a chance to play a (Palm Beach) Dwyer or an Aquinas or somebody like that, they won’t have any better players than what we saw against Good Counsel or what we’re seeing against Bosco.
“We’ve been tested. We will have been tested against the best. Whether we’re good enough to play with them, that’s something we’ll have to find out.”
The Hurricanes want to win tonight, just as every team wants to win every game it plays. And it’s ridiculous to say the final score doesn’t matter -- if so, why not just save some electricity and leave the scoreboard unplugged.
But Manatee scheduled Good Counsel and scheduled Don Bosco in the hopes of getting better, of ironing out the bugs before playing the likes of Braden River, Sarasota and Venice -- District 10 foes the Hurricanes have to beat if they want to keep their state title hopes intact.
So tonight, the Hurricanes will get another crack at another national No. 1.
Will they beat them?
We’ll find out. Chances are, however, the Hurricanes will be a better team for having tried.
John Lembo, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 745-2097.