MANATEE -- Larry Walton said he hasn’t missed a Palmetto High football game since 1984.
For the last 20 years, Walton said he has run the reserve section at Palmetto’s games -- which means he hasn’t missed the Tigers on Friday nights.
He will be right in the middle of the action Friday night when Palmetto hosts Miami Norland in a Class 5A semifinal, one of two final four games in Manatee County. Manatee High hosts Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer in a Class 7A semifinal.
“I get walked up to constantly, people asking me,” Walton said, “In fact, yesterday someone walked up and asked me, ‘Hey, I need to buy a ticket to the game.’ Like I could sell them one ... I think there will be as many (fans) as there were for Manatee.”
The frenzy has gotten so intense that Walton, an American government and economics teacher at Palmetto High, said the first thing his doctor said upon seeing him for his appointment Wednesday was about the Tigers’ chances against Norland.
Palmetto last played in the state semifinals in 1986, when it fell in the state championship game.
Walton was there, having arrived in Florida in 1983 before teaching at the high school the following year.
“It was good,” he said about the fan support back then. “But nowhere compared to this. ... We were a real small school then. If I remember right, we might’ve been somewhere between 600 and 800.”
Jeff Conley has been a season-ticket holder for Manatee football games for about 35 years.
“We’ve been following for 46 years, ever since we got here,” Conley said. “And I graduated 40 years ago. And my wife is a graduate there and my three kids ... I’ve been following them really closely (this year), and they certainly have a lot of talent.”
The two fans embody the passion that has engulfed Manatee County with two high school teams playing in the state semifinals Friday, something that hasn’t happened since 1994 when Manatee was bounced in the final four while Southeast claimed the second of back-to-back state crowns with a guy named Peter Warrick.
Two county teams hosting state semifinal games, though, hasn’t happened since 1985, when Manatee and Southeast both won to set up state title games at home. The Canes picked up their second state crown, while the Seminoles lost to a guy named Emmitt Smith from Pensacola Escambia.
In Palmetto, Harllee Stadium has taken on a more fan-friendly atmosphere this season with athletic director Kenny Ansbro and his staff putting flags with school emblems at the top of the stadium’s bleachers while the scoreboard has a tribute to the 1975 state champions.
“We want pride in the community,” Ansbro said. “We want people to drive by and see that kind of stuff. ... I love the feel of our stadium.”
The Tigers (12-1) and Hurricanes (11-2) are county rivals, but both are representing the area with a chance to move to the state title game of their respective classifications.
Both Palmetto and Manatee fans have packed the stands on Friday nights.
The Shake Pit is a regular Manatee High stomping ground.
Kojaks Palmetto Ribhouse is right down the road from the high school, and the football program has received support from the restaurant as well as the First Baptist Church.
“They’ve been feeding those boys no matter what,” said Ansbro about First Baptist Church. “They always do the pregame meal. We have a couple other businesses that came on board. ... Not a steady thing like the Shake Pit thing. They’re traditionally Manatee High people. But we have our people in town as well. They put stuff up on signs and you name it.”
Walton said the Church on the Rock has also supplied pregame meals for the Tigers this year, and Ansbro added the Cherokee Corporation as another business that’s rallied behind the program.
Conley, of Conley Buick, has listened to all the games this season. Mainly, because he has only gotten out to one Manatee game because his son, Chris, plays college football at Ole Miss.
Nonetheless, the Conleys are part of the excitement that is getting to a fever pitch in Manatee County.
“We’re fortunate in Manatee County to have such great football programs,” Conley said. “Not only Palmetto coming back, but Southeast has had a very historic program over the years with Coach Maechtle.”
North of the Manatee River, near Palmetto High, there’s a road sign saying “Go Tigers” that Ansbro said the city put up about three weeks ago.
There hasn’t been any advance ticket sales at Palmetto, but that hasn’t stopped fan desire to flock the stadium this coming Friday.
“It’s going to be a big night,” Ansbro said. “It’s going to be crazy. We have several ticket outlets, so that way we don’t need to presale. Some places only have two gates to get through. At Palmetto, we’re lucky enough to have several gates open. So people around that stadium are coming in, just like a regular football stadium.”
A big night for two programs and one county.