BRADENTON -- Myles Braxton-Johnson said he feels part of the Southeast-Manatee football rivalry in every aspect but one.
He has watched film of Peter Warrick's electrifying punt return that sent Manatee down to defeat and of Adrian McPherson picking apart the Hurricanes with his precision passing.
The only thing missing for Braxton-Johnson is the experience of walking off the field a winner. The quarterback and the rest of the 24 Southeast seniors have never beaten Manatee.
The only people standing on the Southeast sidelines who know the feeling of beating Manatee is Seminoles head coach Paul Maechtle and members of his staff.
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It's not that Braxton-Johnson and the other seniors lack talent. They've just come along at the wrong time. Southeast enrollment has been dwindling over the past decade with Lake
wood Ranch and Braden River getting a lot of players who would have become Seminoles.
Meanwhile, Manatee's enrollment has held firm, and the Hurricanes' football program has gone national. The exposure, along with a bevy of talent, has helped the Canes earn a No. 1 national ranking in several publications.
"You look at the fact that we had 25 seniors on the team at one time, but still had to start three or four sophomores who should've been playing JV," Maechtle said. "If they are the best players we have we have to put them on the field. I don't know about enrollment. It's been a pretty good battle, but we can't predict what will happen. Things started to snowball negatively against us last year, and we have to respond better and be able to answer that."
Manatee won its fifth straight game in the series last year to take a 16-14 lead. The 48-6 final score is the most lopsided in the rivalry. It prompted talk around the county that this is no longer a big rivalry.
Maechtle doesn't know if he shares that thought, but he said ticket sales for the game at his home field have not been as robust as in the past.
"We will just have to wait and see. How many people come will be the teller if it is still exciting for the people here," the coach said.
In his second year as Southeast's starting quarterback, Braxton-Johnson refuses to believe the rivalry has lost glitter, especially with the Southeast players.
"I feel it's still a rivalry because it is two cross-town rivals, and they have been meeting for a long time. They have might beaten us five times in a row, but it's always a special game," Braxton-Johnson said.
"We've been hearing all week that we are the underdog, but if we have heart we could come out on top. For us, it's also the chance to play the number one team in the nation, and not many teams get a chance to do that."
Several things have to happen for Southeast to have a chance. A lot of that depends on whether Braxton-Johnson can get a passing game going, which should open things up for Courtney Allen, arguably the area's best running back.
In last year's game, Braxton-Johnson was under duress a lot and spent most of the game running for his life. He needs some time and that will rest on whether Southeast's offensive line can keep Manatee's front four somewhat under control.
"I don't know anybody who is not under duress from those guys up front," Maechtle said. "If we are going to have a passing game, he is going to have to handle it, and we have to help him. We haven't had the same offensive line all year because of injuries."
The Noles have a talented receiving corps, led by Jacob Sannon and including Antonio Ray and Kaddarius Carly.
An excellent student who is being recruited by several Ivy League schools, Braxton-Johnson seems to have everything down to a science when it comes to throwing the football.
Braxton-Johnson and Manatee's Cord Sandberg are the two most accurate passers in the area, which could make things tough for each team's secondary. Sandberg has thrown nine touchdown passes without an interception, and Braxton-Johnson has been picked off once with six TD passes.
Sandberg has been near perfect, completing 72 percent of his passes (58-81), and Braxton-Johnson has connected on 54 percent of his throws (39-73).
"I need 3.5 seconds to throw the ball, and the receivers have to get open in 3.5 seconds," Braxton Johnson says. "The key is good play by the offensive line and by the receivers. Our receivers are good. Jacob is our Mr. Clutch, Carly is our speed guy, and Ray is reliable."
Maechtle has had some pretty good defensive fronts down through the years, most recently with Terrance Sanders, who played at Florida, and David Fonua, but says he hasn't seen a front four as deep and talented as Manatee's.
"Those guys have college size and strength, which you don't find that much in high school. They have defensive linemen who are playmakers, who move around and use up space," Maecthle said. "To win, we got to play real good sound football game, and if they have some bumps in the road we have to take advantage of it. We have to be diversified and get out on the perimeter and hope our guys can make some plays."