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Manatee Hurricanes win thriller, head to state final for 2nd time in 3 years

BRADENTON -- Somehow, someway, Manatee’s football team shielded itself from the joyful madness that had enveloped Hawkins Stadium on Friday night.

Huddled together in silence, the Hurricanes looked toward their coach, Joe Kinnan.

“Now,” said Kinnan, soaked from a water-cooler shower, “there’s two!”

So much for the silence.

The players screamed in unison, and after a few minutes, broke up to dish out and take hugs from just about all of the 6,000 fans who witnessed another state semifinal win.

Manatee outlasted Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer 19-14 during Friday’s Class 7A state semifinal, winning a game that was as close as it was dramatic.

Next stop: The Florida Citrus Bowl, where Manatee (12-2) meets Jacksonville First Coast (13-0) for the state championship at 7 p.m. next Friday.

“This is my first state,” said junior defensive back Willie Smith. “I can’t even tell you how it feels.”

This is Manatee’s seventh trip to the finals and second overall, and it wasn’t sealed until the game’s waning minutes.

The Panthers (12-2) took a 14-13 lead on a 10-yard run by quarterback Faton Bauta, a Georgia-bound senior who chugged for 151 yards and two touchdowns. The Canes had a hard time corralling Bauta, a 6-foot-3, 223-pound converted linebacker who nearly lugged Dwyer to the final on his own.

But on Dwyer’s second-to-last play of the night, and with Manatee leading 19-14, Bauta came up lame after losing two yards. Their offensive star on the sideline, the Panthers faced a fourth-and-5 from Manatee’s 27 with 1:07 left to play and put Bobby Puyol, their kicker and backup quarterback, under center.

Puyol uncorked a low throw that sophomore receiver Johnnie Dixon was unable to handle, allowing the Canes to melt the clock.

“We knew if we got in the end zone,” said Manatee quarterback Cord Sandberg, “our defense wasn’t going to let us down.”

So Sandberg got them there. Down 14-13 with six minutes left, Sandberg capped a 63-yard drive when he sprinted 21 yards for a touchdown, giving the Canes a 19-14 lead with 2:56 remaining.

Aiding the drive was a personal foul penalty called on Dwyer, which moved the ball 15 yards to the 27.

“That same play that I scored on, earlier, we ran,” Sandberg said. “It was the same exact cut up, except I slipped. ... We came back to it, luckily it was open, and I kept my footing.”

The first half was the defensive battle everyone anticipated, as the Panthers took a 7-6 lead into the locker room. In fact, it was Manatee’s defense that got the Canes on the board when Smith recovered a fumble by Dwyer’s Malik Brown and returned it 52 yards for a touchdown with 2:11 remaining in the second quarter.

It was a heads-up play by Smith, especially because most of the Panthers, assuming the ground had caused the fumble, stopped running.

“I don’t stop until the whistle blows,” Smith said.

The Canes’ offense followed suit in the third quarter when Antonio Agurs, who fumbled on Dwyer’s 9-yard line during Manatee’s first series, sprinted two yards into the end zone to give the Canes 13-7 lead with 7:56 left in the third quarter.

The two quarterbacks traded touchdowns before Manatee’s defense sealed the win -- and another trip to Orlando.

Leon Allen had 72 rushing yards for the Canes.

“You saw two heavyweights,” Kinnan said, “slugging it out out there.”