APOPKA -- Judging the by the sniffles and red eyes in Manatee's huddle Friday night, the Hurricanes' season ended earlier than anyone anticipated with a loss to Apopka in a Class 8A state semifinal.
Head coach John Booth acknowledged as much in his postgame speech.
"I know there is nothing I can say to make you feel better," he told his players.
As much as the present hurt, however, the Manatee faithful must feel good about the future, especially after the Hurricanes won 12 games, as well as district and region titles, to cap one of the most tumultuous times in the program's tradition-soaked history.
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Manatee didn't have a head coach until July, when Booth was hired after Joe Kinnan announced he was taking a medical leave of absence for the season. Kinnan, who won five state championships with the Canes, didn't coach in the spring, either.
On the field, the Hurricanes returned one starter on offense and a line that played junior varsity all of last season.
Yet Manatee still played into the semifinals in the biggest classification in the state.
"You get to the state semis," Booth said, "I'm proud of them."
Manatee's success this season was the byproduct of players with a mixed bag of experience. Defensively, Kwanzi Jackson totaled 25 sacks in his first season on the varsity team after the end spent last season with the JV. Jackson also blocked two punts, caused two fumbles and recovered three.
Another junior, running back Johnnie Lang, produced one of the greatest rushing
seasons in county history. A backup the last two seasons, Lang totaled 2,116 yards and 32 touchdowns on the ground and scored in every game except Friday's defeat at Apopka. Lang is up for Class 8A Player of the Year in the Florida Dairy Farmers High School Sports Awards.
Classmate Malik Mitchell had three interceptions, Travon Rumph blocked three field goals, and of the five guys on Manatee's offensive line, the only senior was Bernard Shaw. Josh Carden, Luke Clifton, Sam Cuva and Bradley Stickler all are expected back next season.
The seniors performed, too. Wide receiver Kelvin McKnight pulled in 48 catches and nine touchdowns, and had 124 receiving yards Friday during his final game as a Hurricane, and linebacker Nashon Smith led the team in tackles while Jamarion McDonald had three interceptions. Jumar Gaskin, another linebacker, blocked three punts and a field goal.
But as important as their play on the field was, Booth, a Class 8A Coach of the Year nominee, said what the seniors did in the locker room was just as important.
"They were the ones that really allowed this thing to happen," Booth said. "As your leaders on your team, they were the ones I needed personally to buy in the most, and I'm so appreciative of what they've been able to do. A month before the season and all of a sudden you've got a new guy and nobody knows who I am. It could have made for a really difficult situation, and they didn't allow that."
Following a season-opening loss to Ware County, Ga., the Canes won 12 straight, including victories over undefeated teams Venice, Vero Beach and Orlando Dr. Phillips.
Phillips had won 37 straight home games before Manatee won the Region 2 title at Bill Spoone Stadium.
Now Booth wants to spin everything forward into next season.
"I think it was big for our young guys to get to this position in the playoffs," he said, "and gain that experience. You get three, four rounds into the playoffs, you get into some good football, pressure situations, and I like where we're at with guys returning, kind of been there, kind of done that. Hopefully, that will give us that springboard for next year."