APOPKA -- There were tears and hugs and one final ovation from the fans who trekked more than 120 miles to watch Manatee play another December football game.
But there also were the Apopka Blue Darters, who were simply better in every facet of the game during Friday's Class 8A state semifinal.
So while Manatee quietly assessed its season, Apopka toasted a third straight trip to a state final as the Blue Darters defeated the Hurricanes 45-14.
It was Manatee's first loss since a season-opening defeat against Ware County, Ga., a span of almost five months. And it came at the hands of an Apopka offense that was deceptive, prolific and too tough to stop.
"They were just a better team (Friday)," Manatee defensive end Kwanzi Jackson said. "This team right here, they had the will to win. They really wanted to win. ... We had the will to win, too, but we got it too late."
The Hurricanes forced Apopka to punt on its opening drive, something the Blue Darters did just 25 times in 13 games entering Friday, before it scored on its next four possessions to take a 24-0 lead into halftime.
Efficient in running its single wing, which featured a plethora of ball carriers but no true quarterback, Apopka finished with 457 rushing yards, including a game-high 144 from Auburn-bound back Chandler Cox.
Cox also scored two touchdowns and completed 2 of 3 pass attempts for 56 yards. He was the thunder to the lightning of Deshawn Massey, a 5-foot-2 sophomore who gashed and sprinted his way to 143 yards on just 12 carries. He also scored twice.
"They overload, and you try to make adjustments and overload their side and they come back with a counter," said Manatee head coach John Booth, who won 12 games and a region title in his first season coaching at his alma mater. "It's just tough, and it's tough to simulate in practice. ... They're good at it. So it's a tough one to defend. But we had some moments, and when were able to get the ball back to our offense, we didn't make enough big plays."
Manatee got to Apopka's 5-yard line late in the second half but the Blue Darters stuffed Johnnie Lang (14 carries, 28 yards) on third down and intercepted Sloan Drummonds in the end zone on the final play of the second quarter.
The Hurricanes offense sprung to some semblance of life in the second half, when Drummonds and Kelvin McKnight connected on touchdown passes of 43 and 54 yards.
Drummonds threw for 189 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, and McKnight had five catches for 124 yards.
But Apopka countered with three fourth-quarter touchdowns and will play for the Class 8A state title next Saturday against Miami Columbus.
"We knew we needed to get out early, get first downs and move the ball," Booth said, "and we just didn't do that in the beginning part of game."
Despite the sour finish, Booth was proud of his players in his first season as their coach.
"You come in and hope you can make a good run ... and I think we did that," Booth said. "It would have been nice to cap it off with the ring. But I'm proud of what we were able to do this year, especially considering the challenges our kids faced, especially our seniors.
"I'm appreciative of how they embraced me."