BRADENTON -- Another year, another game between Manatee and Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas.
The Hurricanes and Raiders meet for the fourth time in six years in a Class 5A state semifinal 7:30 p.m. Friday at Brian Piccolo Stadium in Fort Lauderdale for the right to play for a state championship.
If that scenario sounds familiar, that’s because it is.
The two first met in 2005, when the Raiders rolled past Manatee 45-17 in Bradenton.
The ensuing two matchups, however, have been borderline classics -- Aquinas needed a pair of overtimes to defeat Manatee 36-29 in ’06 before the Hurricanes defeated the Raiders 28-20 last December in Bradenton.
Aquinas was ranked No. 1 in the nation at the time and the winner of 37 straight games and two consecutive Class 5A state titles.
Since then, both teams have been barreling toward a rematch.
Manatee finished the regular season ranked first in the state in Class 5A and went 10-0 for the first time in 20 years. Aquinas, ranked second, has been just as good -- each team enters Friday with a 13-0 record for the first time in the series.
“It’s going to be a good game,” Raiders defensive lineman Jelani Hamilton told the Sun-Sentinel after Aquinas defeated Boyd H. Anderson in Friday’s Region 4 final. “We could’ve won last year, but we weren’t focused. We have to take them seriously.”
The Hurricanes endured their closest game of the season Friday when they defeated Palm Bay Bayside 35-32 to win the program’s 12th regional title.
Though it was enough to get Manatee back into the final four and one step closer to playing for the team’s fifth state title, the performance wasn’t enough to totally impress coach Joe Kinnan -- especially the defense, which allowed 271 yards of rushing.
“It was far and away the worst defensive effort we put on the field this year,” Kinnan said.
The Class 5A final four is a carbon copy of last season’s -- Tampa Plant hosts Lakeland in the other state semifinal. The Panthers defeated the Dreadnaughts last year en route to winning the state title -- their third in four years -- at Manatee’s expense.
This year’s state title game is scheduled for Friday, Dec. 17, at the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando.
Manatee County nearly had two teams in the final four this year, but Southeast fell to South Fort Myers 28-21 in the Class 3A-Region 3 final.
The game came to a controversial conclusion -- a 14-yard pass from Southeast quarterback Dyron Speight to Antonio Ray with just over 10 seconds left was ruled incomplete by an official after two called it a touchdown.
(A video of the play can be seen on news-press.com.)
Despite the sour finish, the Noles went 10-3 and won their third straight district title. They also recorded a pair of thrilling wins, defeating Lake Wales and Winter Haven each by scores of 21-20 in the first two rounds of the Region 3 tournament.