BRADENTON -- Early on, Manatee’s opening round playoff game against Class 7A-District 9 runner-up Pinellas Park on Friday night had the look of a trap game.
The Patriots were playing without quarterback Brandon Hames, who was injured in a car accident Thursday night.
But after a gut check and a couple of early wasted opportunities, the Hurricanes returned to their dominating ways and dispatched the Patriots 55-2 behind four touchdown passes from Cord Sandberg on a windy night at Hawkins Stadium.
Manatee got on the board on the second play of the game when Pinellas Park fullback Ryan Rienoso fumbled at the Patriot 22-yard line. Blake Keller scooped up the ball and raced untouched for the score.
On Manatee’s first offensive possession, Cord Sandberg was sacked by Jeremi Powell in the end zone for a safety.
Powell, who has committed to the University of Florida, celebrated by doing a “gator chomp” all the way to the sideline.
The Hurricanes drove all the way down to the Patriot 1-yard line on their next drive, only to come up empty when Sandberg fumbled into the end zone on a quarterback keeper.
Sandberg would atone for that mistake later when he found Anthony Lauro, whose 26-yard run on a reverse set Manatee up at the Pinellas Park 12, wide open in the back of the end zone. The pair hooked up again for another score just before the half to put the Hurricanes up 22-2 at the break.
“The first couple of drives, things weren’t really clicking,” Sandberg said. “They were playing a little bit of man and had some guys in the box. When we had some runs on the perimeter; we had some success.”
Manatee exploded for 27 points in the third quarter. Antonio Agurs took over the game offensively, weaving his way through the Patriot defense for a 65-yard touchdown catch on a screen pass on the first play from scrimmage of the half.
“That was one of the adjustments we made at halftime,” Manatee head coach Joe Kinnan said of the play. “We ran it one time out of an empty backfield, but our guard missed the block. This time, we felt what they were getting on the edge and we went into a tight end set. We got it blocked down and that made it a little easier for our quarterback.”
He would add a 16-yard touchdown run and 22-yard touchdown pass from Sandberg, all within a four-minute span.
Manatee’s defense got another huge play toward the end of the quarter. After surrendering a 26-yard catch and run to Josh Green, Green was stripped at the Manatee 38, where Darius White picked up the ball. White made his way to the right sideline and got into a convoy all the way to the end zone to put the exclamation point on the quarter.
“Our defense played lights out all night,” Kinaan said. “Once we settled down and moved the ball around and got Antonio Agurs going, we played unbelievable tonight. It’s great to have depth, and he stepped in and showed we have enough parts to make a complete football team. Right now, we’re pretty much a complete football team -- offense, defense and kicking game, you can’t do much better than we did tonight.”
Manatee will continue its quest toward a state championship when they will host Venice, who beat Clearwater Countryside 28-27. The Hurricanes defeated the Indians 52-19 earlier this season.
“You just take the playoff atmosphere and hopefully we don’t start the game off like we did tonight,” Sandberg said.