VALDOSTA, GA. -- Approximately five minutes stood between another regular-season win, another pleasant ride home and a successful start to a new era of Manatee football.
But for a team and a fan base conditioned to expect the best, what happened Friday night at Martin Stadium was most definitely unexpected.
A late whirlwind of huge plays by Ware County were enough dealt Manatee a 23-7 loss, the Hurricanes' first in the regular season since New Jersey's Don Bosco Prep beat them during Week 3 in 2011, a span of 29 games.
And it happened so fast. Manatee was up 7-3 with 5:07 remaining before the defense, so stout for most of the night, allowed its first big play - a 56-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Quayshawn Taylor.
But that was nothing compared to the 1-2 punch delivered by the Gators' Sammy Burley. First, he stepped in front of a pass from Manatee quarterback A.J. Colagiovanni and returned it 32 yards for a touchdown.
One series later, he did it again, this time bringing it back 25 yards to arm Ware County (2-0) with a 23-7 lead less than three minutes after the Gators were down by four.
"Three big plays on Ware County's part changes the
game," said John Booth, who made his regular-season debut as Manatee's head coach. "We were saying on the sideline saying how it was amazing (that) two minutes ago, we had the lead. Now it's a completely different ballgame. It's just kind of unfortunate how it finished out."
The Hurricanes overhauled offense, replete with new offensive lineman, and a new quarterback and offensive coordinator, totaled just 113 yards. And Colagiovanni, a sophomore making his first varsity start, was sacked four times and finished with 99 passing yards.
But seniors Kelvin McKnight and Nashon Smith offered encouragement to Colagiovannni while Booth, a quarterback during his days at Manatee and MidAmerica Nazarene, spoke with him after the game.
"Stuff happens. The kid, he's a sophomore - he's going to throw picks in his career," said Smith, who helped anchor a defense that limited Ware County to 191 yards and one touchdown. "He's going to get better - way better. I'm not mad at him, I'm not mad at my team. We played our hearts out."
Colagiovanni and McKnight teamed for the game's first big play late in the third quarter: A 54-yard reception that got the ball to Ware County's 6. Johnnie Lang's 5-yard touchdown run two plays later gave the Canes a 7-0 lead with 2:25 remaining in the quarter.
McKnight finished with 81 yards receiving on four catches while Lang rushed for a team-best 20 yards on 12 carries.
"We've got new five starting new offensive linemen, we're starting three new receivers, there's a lot of new faces out there," Booth said. "It's just going to take some time to continue to gel."
The Hurricanes will try to bounce back next week at home against Sanford Seminole.
"I told the guys, we could go one of two ways with this," Booth said. "And the way we're going to go is rise above it and learn from it and get better."
"Crazy motivation," he said. "We just came in here, our heads were a little loose. But next time, next game, we're going hard - 110 percent. Every day, every play."