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Manatee has mountain to climb in semis

So here they come, the Raiders of Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas.

The No. 1 team in the nation.

The team with enough Division I recruits to have its own bowl game. The team with the 37-game winning streak. The team that won a national championship trophy last year.

This is the mountain Manatee has to climb to get to the Class 5A state championship game.

This is also the ultimate opportunity.

When tonight’s state semifinal kicks off at 7:30 p.m. today at Hawkins Stadium, the Hurricanes will find themselves on the cusp of doing something special.

Bucking the odds.

Manatee’s players and coaches know they’re the underdog. The fans know. Everyone knows.

Everyone knows that everyone expects Aquinas to march into Bradenton tonight and march right back into the Citrus Bowl next week to defend its consecutive Class 5A state championships.

And tonight, Manatee will have the opportunity to make its own history, to score its own upset.

To win the game.

Winning the game won’t be easy. As Manatee coach Joe Kinnan said earlier in the week, Aquinas has no weaknesses — it’s an All-Star team stuffed with talent on all sides of the ball.

But Kinnan is just as quick to point out that his Hurricanes are pretty good, too. They’ve got a Division I quarterback who can drop back and throw to a pair of Division I receivers.

They’ve got a Division I running back. They’ve got Division I talent on the defensive side of the football.

“We’re playing pretty good right now,” Kinnan said.

And tonight, in front of an expected overflow crowd, they’ve got a chance to knock heads with the best team in America and see how good they are.

“We want them here. I want them here,” said Steve Gulash, Manatee’s defensive line coach. “I want to see how good we are, Joe wants to see how good we are. Because if we lose, we can get better. And if they lose, than we did something spectacular. Either way, we’re in a win-win situation — we have something to gain by just playing.”

The state championship game is played on a neutral site, so this is the best it can get for a team — hosting a state semifinal.

The Hawkins Stadium gates will open at 5:45 p.m., with the smoke from a pre-game barbecue expected to waft over the incoming crowd.

There will be scouts galore standing on the sidelines, as well as players and coaches from schools all over the area, looking to catch a glimpse of the only game in town.

That’s what happens when a state semifinal comes to your stadium, to your school. And that’s what happens when a challenge this big, this mighty comes to your school, as well.

The Manatee Hurricanes are hosting Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas tonight, the greatest high school team in the country.

Will Manatee do it?

We’ll see.

Right now, the Hurricanes are happy that they’re going to get a chance to see how good the Raiders really are.

And most importantly, how good they really are.

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