BRADENTON -- The last time we saw Blake Keller, he was lying on the sideline, the victim of a vicious hit, and Hawkins Stadium's capacity crowd waited in quiet anticipation.
Then he walked off the field toward Manatee's bench before heading to Blake Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with bruised ribs as the Hurricanes were wrapping up a 44-34 win over Miami Central.
On Tuesday, however, he was all smiles. Manatee's senior defensive end will play Friday when the Hurricanes head to Southeast for the 31st edition of the area's most tradition-rich rivalry.
Chalk it up to good timing.
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Manatee (3-0) is fresh off a bye week, which gave Keller time to heal and the Hurricanes time to rest up as they attempt to beat the Seminoles (3-1) for the fifth consecutive time to take a 17-14 lead in the series.
"That bye got us recov
ered, got us rejuvenated," senior defensive lineman Marquis Dawsey said. "We're coming off bumps and bruises coming off that tough game against Miami Central, so that was good, to come in playing our rivals fresh."
For proof, look back to last season. Manatee began the year 1-2, with both losses coming to nationally-ranked Our Lady of Good Counsel (Md.) and Don Bosco Prep (N.J.), and the Hurricanes used the week to rest and tweak the offense a bit.
Rather than have running back Leon Allen run around the ends, Manatee lined him up at fullback against Southeast and had him run between the tackles. The wrinkle resulted in Allen chugging for 134 yards on 14 carries and a 48-6 win, the largest margin of victory in the history of the series.
Manatee hasn't lost since, and the Canes are hopeful this year's respite yields similar results.
Despite the perfect record, Manatee has endured some early challenges: The Canes opened the regular season on a broiling Sunday afternoon against Miramar and had to play Riverview five days later, resulting in a string of 11 straight days in which Manatee either played or practiced.
Then came Week 3's physical and emotional win over the Rockets, who opened the season ranked first in the nation by USA Today.
The poll's top spot now belongs to Manatee, which also is ranked first in the nation by MaxPreps and second by ESPN and Rivals.
"I loved having our bye at this point in time," quarterback Cord Sandberg said. "That game with Miami Central was a flat-out battle. It was nice to do nothing over that bye week and have our guys just chill."
That includes Keller, who didn't see any contact during the bye week but returned to action this week.
"After those Miami games, everyone was a little beat up," said Keller, who leads the team with 3 1/2 sacks. "Everybody feels healthy, and it's nice to come off fresh for our biggest rivalry."
Sandberg isn't concerned the week off dulled Manatee's edge, especially because the Canes have won 15 straight dating back to last year's win over the Noles.
"Our coaching staff does a pretty good job," he said. "The bye week was chill, but this week, guys have been flying around, and the defense has been doing a lot of talking and getting us aggravated, and we do the same thing on offense, too. We have to play against a good defense every day.
"Hopefully, it doesn't take us a quarter or so to get back into it."
Manatee is in the midst of another golden age: The Canes won their fifth state championship last year, haven't lost a regular-season game to a Florida school since 2009 and haven't lost to a county team since Southeast beat them in Week 1 of 2006.
They are a nationally-ranked powerhouse that has been on ESPN two times in the last three years.
But they still consider Friday's game a big one and are happy to be headed there healthy.
"This is for area bragging rights, and you always want to be the county champ," Keller said, "so you want to beat everybody."
"It's Southeast, and since I was 7, I've grown up knowing they were the enemy," Sandberg said. "It's not getting old or losing its luster at all. I haven't been to their place since I was a sophomore, so hopefully we can go in there and take care of business."