There was a time when Manatee County football fans expected greatness with their morning cup of coffee.
This was back when local football ruled Florida. Back when it ruled the nation.
Back when state championship games were separated by a handful of miles and college’s biggest bowls always featured someone from Manatee County.
Times have changed. People have changed. But as the 2009 regular season begins tonight, it’s hard to look around at what’s happening and not feel some sense of optimism.
Manatee has Brion Carnes and Ace Sanders and Mike Blakely. Palmetto has Kerchal Byrd Jr., Brandon Tarpley and Ty Scott. Southeast has Jonathan Dowling. Lakewood Ranch has Austin Reiter. Bayshore has Garrett Secor. Braden River has Tevin Bryant and Trevor Barnes.
Carnes, Byrd Jr. and Dowling have all given commitments to Division I schools, with Dowling planning on following two other recent alums, Terron Sanders (Southeast) and Kedric Johnson (Palmetto), to Florida.
Others should make their choices soon, which could lead to a very crowded and eventful National Signing Day.
It’s a bushel of talent, and it comes two years after none of the public schools sent anyone to a Division I powerhouse.
That happens. High school sports is nothing if not cyclical, with different classes featuring different players who have different ways of going about things.
And now tonight, as another regular season begins, there seem to be blue chippers at all corners of the area, and we do mean all corners — Out-of-Door Academy has its first Division I player in Jamie Onufrak (Marshall University) and Cardinal Mooney has another in lineman Mark Smith Jr. (Ohio University).
The purists, the football lifers, may scoff, harkening back to when Manatee and Southeast were dotting the USA Today Top 10 and people began showing up at 4 p.m. for home games. They may tell you it’s not like it was back then.
Maybe it’s not. Maybe it won’t ever be again.
But there are some special players playing before our eyes right now, guys who will probably be playing inside your plasma screens on Saturday next fall.
And it makes winners out of everyone involved. Fans get to see some good football. Teams get better for their grueling district runs. And most importantly, with a number of schools clustered together, college scouts checking out a player at one school may, on a hunch, head over to another.
Exposure is infectious. It spreads.
So the regular season opens tonight, probably at a stadium near you. There will probably be a superstar playing inside that same stadium, doing his best to help Manatee County link back to its glorious past.
And the past was glorious. Just don’t rule out the future. Or the present.