That was no exhibition game they played Friday night at Hawkins Stadium.
Armwood and Manatee went toe to toe until the final whistle. The Hawks even had their starters in the game with less than a minute left and trailing 29-18 while trying for some kind of miracle.
It was revealing, if nothing else, for Manatee.
Better than advertised.
We learned this Canes team can be special. Their offense is even more explosive than last year, when they averaged 41 points in their last eight games. But defense is where they shined in keeping Armwood’s highly touted run game in check.
Armwood is no ordinary team. The Hawks have arguably the best running back tandem in the state with Brian Snead (Ohio State commit) and Erin Collins (NC State).
They are 42-4 the last three years, making it to the state championship game in which they lost to Miami Central each time, and they are the No. 1-ranked public school team in the state by Max Preps (fifth overall).
A big boost for Manatee was the play of linebacker Gary White, a transfer from Miami. The junior had a key fumble recovery down the stretch, an interception, a tackle for loss and was in on nine tackles (five solos).
Other defensive leaders: Keyvus Canady with nine tackles (four solos), Sir Williams (6-5), Josh Betts (6-5) and Brandon Dossey (8-6) with a sack.
The Canes showed something they couldn’t do last season: stop a power running team. That inability knocked them out of the playoffs the last two years.
Defensive coordinator Chad Choate said his group is a lot more athletic than last season although they are young in the back seven. He also did some switching, going to a nickel package that helped because of his athletic defensive backs.
With quarterback A.J. Colagiovanni leading the way, Manatee has weapons all over the field,
Josh Booker, the transfer running back, is looking like Manatee County’s version of Beast Mode. On one play, he carried the entire Armwood defense on his back for more than 10 yards before they could stop him.
With the exception of standout senior Tarique Milton, the receiving corps is young and small, starting three underclassman all 5-foot-6 or shorter, but they can fly and are blessed with soft hands.
With Milton starting at quarterback because of the uncertainty over Colagiovanni's surgically repaired foot, Manatee found itself a nice wildcat package to add to his receiving skills.
“Most definitely, I like playing receiver, that’s my comfort zone,” Milton said. “But it felt good playing some quarterback. I had a little bit of a slow start, but I got it together and slowed everything down. This win means a lot. They are a tough opponent and it’s going to get us ready for the rest of the season.”
Going into the regular-season opener this week, nothing changed to discount the belief that Manatee and Braden River are the best two teams in Manatee County, but Palmetto will have a chance to upset that apple cart with games against both, something Tigers coach Dave Marino will try to exploit.
To many, Venice is the best team in the Manatee-Sarasota County area and looked strong in beating power Tampa Plant in another game in which the teams went all out to win. The Indians have to play Manatee, Braden River and Palmetto.
Manatee and Braden River still aren’t playing each other, but both face Venice and Palmetto, so that might be the only way to determine which team is superior in what is certainly an inexact science.
After a spring game and Friday night’s classic, we have to conclude that the area team likely to show the most improvement is Southeast.
The Seminoles trounced their last two opponents.
Most importantly for head coach Rashad West is the play of quarterback Alex Taylor.
The junior threw two touchdown passes and led Southeast to touchdowns on all four drives he engineered in a 52-3 rout against Tampa Leto Friday night.
It all starts for real this Friday, but don’t tell that to Manatee and Armwood. The season has already begun for both.