BRADENTON -- For the second time in three weeks, Hawkins Stadium was featured in the national spotlight.
No, ESPN wasn't on hand as Manatee defeated Miami Central 44-34 in a matchup of two nationally-ranked teams.
But MaxPreps, which lists Manatee No. 1 in its Xcellent Top 25, listed it as one of the country's top 10 games.
Sports Illustrated, which also ranks Manatee No. 1, mentioned the game on its website. Ditto for Rivals, which lists both teams in its RivalsHigh 100.
A win tonight helps the Hurricanes (3-0) take another step toward possibly claiming a mythical national title.
But it won't help them reach their ultimate goal to repeat as the state's Class 7A champion.
"The national title, if that happens, that happens, because I'm going to be honest -- I don't know who ever wins the national title," Manatee quarterback Cord Sandberg said. "And really, state championships, you forget after a couple of years. But a state championship, that's kind of the thing that's our No. 1 goal. The national thing, that's all computers and generated stuff based on opinion. It's really out of your hands."
Opinions differ when it comes to winning a prep national championship. Don Bosco Prep (N.J.) was named the nation's best team last year by MaxPreps and ESPN, but Rivals went a different route and crowned Trinity out of Louisville, Ky.
The same can be said this year
-- Manatee is No. 1, according to the folks at MaxPreps, USA Today and SI.com. But ESPN ranks the Canes third, and Rivals has them fourth.
"As far as being No. 1, I mean, it's a big deal. ... But it's just another number," said senior defensive back Willie Smith. "It doesn't matter who starts at No. 1, it's most of all, who finishes. We just want to prepare for this game like every other game, come out hard and try to win the game."
The Rockets (1-1) began the year atop USA Today's Super 25 before losing 35-3 to Grayson out of Loganville, Ga. But a win over another nationally-ranked Miami power last week, Booker T. Washington, shot them to No. 39 in Rivals' rankings and landed at No. 10 according to SI.com.
When you're talking about the national picture, however, nothing is guaranteed. Just ask Seffner Armwood, which went undefeated last season, won the Class 6A state title and traveled across the country to Nevada and beat national power Bishop Gorman -- and didn't finish first in any of the polls. The Hawks later were forced to vacate their victories over a eligibility infraction.
Winning a state title is simpler. Make the playoffs. Win out. Hoist the trophy.
"If you can get to the playoffs, win your district games, that's the thing that you control," Sandberg said, "and that's the only thing you can really worry about."
Both of Manatee's losses last year came to out-of-state, nationally-ranked foes: Don Bosco and Our Lady of Good Counsel (Md.). And while both defeats ruined the Hurricanes' chances of hanging a banner boasting a national championship, coaches and players said playing such stiff competition steeled Manatee for a run that ended with the program winning its fifth state title.
Regardless of what the rest of the country thinks about them, that's how the Canes want to wrap up this season, too.
"A state championship is what we want," said running/back wide receiver Anthony Lauro. "That's what we really want."