They’ve won in Lakewood Ranch, Palmetto and St. Petersburg.
They’ve run the clock in North Port and Sarasota.
Now the biggest game of the year beckons, and the Manatee Hurricanes have to get on a bus and make way across three interstates and a couple toll roads before stopping at Palm Bay, pop. 100,786, according to the U.S. Census.
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Not exactly walking distance from the Shake Pit.
MapQuest tell us Manatee has to travel nearly 183 miles for tonight’s game against Palm Bay Bayside, with the winner clinching the Class 5A-Region 3 championship and a spot in the state semifinals.
Don’t blame the Canes for not dreading the trip. They’re 6-0 on the road this year, and are currently riding a three-game road winning streak where they have outscored their opponents 165-22.
Keep in mind two of those wins came against North Port and Booker, a pair of teams who struggled this fall.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Manatee doesn’t seem to lose focus even if the Canes are miles away from the cozy confines at Hawkins Stadium, which has seen its share of postseason thrills over the years.
Homefield has its perks. Teams get to dress in their own fieldhouse and play in front of a loyal and deafening crowd while not having to worry about sitting on a bus.
But leaving home can be nice, too.
“There’s not as many distractions,” said coach Joe Kinnan.
For all its charms and tradition, Hawkins Stadium isn’t equipped with a track. All that stands between the players and the fans standing in the aisles is a chain link fence, which doesn’t exactly keep the noise out.
“The fans love us, but at the gate, they talk to you about crazy stuff,” said junior running back Mike Blakely. “After the game, it’s all right. But during the game, it takes away our concentration, and I just want to concentrate on the game.”
Not that homefield hasn’t had its advantages — Hawkins Stadium was absolutely electric during Manatee’s win over Southeast during this year’s thrilling rivalry game, and was just as madcap during last week’s regional semifinal against St. Petersburg.
In fact, Manatee’s only loss at home this year came to nationally-ranked Venice. So if the Canes do beat the Bears tonight and host a semifinal next week, no one in Manatee colors will be moping.
Yet sometimes it’s just good to get away. And Hurricanes fans are apt to travel — some of you may be reading this hours before hopping on a chartered bus set to leave the Shake Pit parking lot at 3 p.m. — so the players know they won’t be heading to the east coast alone.
Hawkins Stadium will sit empty tonight while Manatee tries to win the biggest game of the year.
Meanwhile, 183 miles away, the Hurricanes will be feeling at home on the road.