Temperatures are supposed to bottom out in the 30s tonight, so it will feel like real football weather at Lakewood Ranch’s football stadium, site of the 18th Annual Brad Price Memorial PAL Bowl.
(Football weather in January, that is. If there was a need down here for knit caps and scarves in the middle of October, there would be a mass exodus).
And it is going to feel like a real football game, too. Never mind that prep season ended less than a month ago or that all-star games generally generate less heat than their regular-season counterparts.
But when kickoff commences at 7:30 p.m. today, and the best seniors from Manatee County go up against the best seniors from Sarasota County, the game will be played with a purpose.
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The purpose is this — Manatee County, down 10-7 in the series and stuck in a three-game skid, wants to stop losing.
“When Dave Bristow (spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office of Manatee County) approached me about coaching, the next thing out of his mouth was, ‘Oh, by the way, they’ve won the last three,’” said Allan Gerber, Bradenton Christian’s head coach who will pilot Manatee County tonight.
The last time Manatee County won the PAL Bowl was in 2005. The hero that night was Southeast’s Faron Hornes, who stepped in at quarterback and earned county MVP honors.
How long ago was that? Well, since this is a seniors-only affair, none of tonight’s players had started high school yet.
How long ago was that? Braden River, which has since clinched two playoff berths, hadn’t played a varsity game yet.
Oh, and did we mention last year’s game, which Sarasota County won 45-7, was replayed during this year’s PAL Bowl banquet?
“That was very hard to watch and eat dinner at the same time,” Gerber said, “if you live in Manatee County.”
Tonight’s game means something. Athletes live to compete, whether they’re playing a game of touch football between fire hydrants or playing for a state championship. Gerber said this group is no different.
“They are very prideful,” he said.
Manatee County had the better season, sending four teams to the playoffs and one — Manatee — to the state championship game. Sarasota County sent two teams to the playoffs.
And Gerber has done his best to keep the players’ fires stoked, whether setting up competitive drills during practice or telling the kids they have a chance to win their final prep football game played in Manatee County.
“This is the only game we’ve got left,” he said. “I’ve been trying to stir that pot.”
Prep football in January may seem a bit strange — but here it is. And around here, prep football games mean something.
Tonight’s is no different.