Two days into Week 4, Allan Gerber could already sense a difference in the mood around the team. Despite a slow start to the season, Bradenton Christian’s practices for Friday’s game against Saint Stephen’s were surrounded with a different buzz.
The head coach and athletic director expect the bleachers at Dan van der Kooy Field should be more packed than any other time this season — and maybe any time in recent years. The friendly trash talk away from the field feels inevitable. The postgame handshake line will probably be a bit more personal.
The Falcons and Panthers — their campuses separated by two miles — will meet for the first time in nearly six years when Bradenton Christian welcomes Saint Stephen’s to Bouwer Athletic Complex to resume a dormant rivalry at 7:30 p.m. in Bradenton.
“The fans are going to be into the environment,” Gerber said. “You get to see a different gear in your players because of the excitement factor of a rivalry game.”
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Saint Stephen’s (2-1) and Bradenton Christian (0-2) are the only two traditional private schools in Manatee County — Out-of-Door Academy’s Lakewood Ranch campus is in Sarasota County — and for more than five years the natural rivalry has been absent from the football field. The last meeting between the two programs took place in 2010 when the Panthers rolled to a 25-point win.
Bradenton Christian finished that regular season with seven wins and missed a postseason berth by one game in the crowded, eight-team Class 1B-District 6. Saint Stephen’s won two games in the district that year before redistricting brought an end to the rivalry. Three years later, Saint Stephen’s departed for the Sunshine State Athletic Conference (SSAC) and the rivalry became an even more distant memory.
Last time Leading passer: Jeremy Perron, SSES (346 yards) Leading rusher: Avian Humphrey, BCS (134 yards) Leading receiver: Adam Vining, SSES (183 yards) Leading tackler: Cole Misztak, SSES (19 tackles) Leading scorer: Austin Dumas, BCS (20 points) Source: MaxPreps.com
In December, Bradenton Christian announced its move to the SSAC. When the Panthers were placed in the Coral Bay division with the Falcons, it meant the rivalry would resume. This week’s meeting will serve as the first Coral Bay game for both teams this season.
“I understand why they moved to the SSAC a couple of years ago. It was a great move on their part and, hindsight being 20/20, probably should’ve done it ourselves,” Gerber said. “At the end of the day we’re there now, we look forward to getting them on the field again and letting some of this rivalry play out.”
Gerber, who has coached Bradenton Christian since 2008, has three games of experience with the rivalry, and a 2-1 record against Saint Stephen’s while this will be Tod Creneti’s first exposure to the rivalry.
Creneti took over as Saint Stephen’s head coach for the 2011 season, one year after the redistricting. The Falcons still played Out-of-Door every year for the Headmaster’s Cup—Bradenton Christian has played the Thunder annually since 2013 — but resuming a yearly contest against the Panthers is different.
“Definitely the proximity makes it unique,” Creneti said. “A lot of the kids know the kids from BCS very well. A lot of them grew up together, so that makes it unique.”
Throughout his childhood, Bradenton Christian quarterback Dominick Otteni played with Saint Stephen’s linebackers Cam Vining, Peyton Vining and Alex Virgilio. On Friday, the Saint Stephen’s linebackers’ effort to stop Otteni when he tucks the ball to run is perhaps the biggest key to staving off a potential upset.
And an upset would throw a bit of a wrench in the Falcons’ expectations for the year, while jump-starting a thus-far disappointing season for the Panthers.
“We’re definitely looking forward to it,” Virgilio said. “Yeah, I would’ve liked to play BCS a little more times in high-school career, but, like we’ve been saying, we can’t focus as a rivalry game. It’s a hometown rival, but we’re not preparing for a rivalry game. We’re just preparing to play another game.”
What: Saint Stephen’s at Bradenton Christian
When: Friday, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Dan van der Kooy Field
Out-of-Door Academy at St. Petersburg Shorecrest Prep, 7 p.m.
Braden River at Lakewood Ranch, 7:30 p.m.
Bayshore at Southeast, 7:30 p.m.
Tampa Alonso at Manatee, 7:30 p.m.
Palmetto at Sarasota, 7:30 p.m.
Bradenton Christian at Saint Stephen’s, 7:30 p.m.
Cardinal Mooney at Largo Indian Rocks, 7:30 p.m.