The stadium clock blinked down the final seconds of the season, but the celebration was already under way.
Not for our Manatee Hurricanes.
Tampa Plant’s Panthers danced and leaped across the field, joined by their coaches, their golden helmets shining in the Citrus Bowl lights.
Plant 21, Manatee 14.
All the Canes could do was numbly watch.
They’d stormed back from a 21-0 halftime deficit and came within a fourth-down-and-short midway through the fourth quarter from sustaining their heroic comeback.
Slowly they assembled at the 50-yard line for the traditional postgame handshake.
Still, the Panthers’ celebration went on. Their cheerleaders assembled for a photo, most of them holding up their index fingers.
What might’ve been.
The Canes just ran out of time.
Staggered by Plant’s 21-point early outburst, Manatee showed a champion’s heart, coming off the ropes in the second half, scoring twice to make it close.
The Canes had their fans on their feet, yelling for more, rocking their side of the stadium.
“LET’S GO MANATEE! LET’S GO MANATEE!” the cheerleaders shouted.
The Marching Canes were cranking the “Empire Strikes Back” theme.
Would their team strike back once more?
When Manatee got the ball back with 1:27 to play, they were working against a gale.
Canes quarterback Brion Carnes had to throw into its teeth.
Three incompletions made it fourth-and-10 from the Manatee 21.
Carnes scampered to his left and let fly, deep toward Ace Sanders, who outleaped two defenders, but couldn’t make the catch.
That was Manatee’s last gasp.
Fifty-seven seconds remained in the season.
The celebration began.
After the Canes shook hands with the Panthers, they drifted toward the south end zone.
Some wept. Some embraced. Some knelt, head in hand.
When coach Joe Kinnan gathered his players around one final time, he told them he was proud of them, especially his seniors.
We have the nucleus to be back here again next season, he told them.
Yet next year seems so far away.
It will take awhile for the Canes to get over how this season ended.
That was the Plant Panthers on Friday night.
Not the Manatee Hurricanes.
Maybe next year.
Mannix About Manatee, by local columnist Vin Mannix, is about people and issues in Manatee County. Please call Vin Mannix at 745-7055, write him at Bradenton Herald, P.O. Box 921, Bradenton, FL 34206 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include a phone number for verification.