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Classic rivalry game helped make tonight possible

BRADENTON -- Tonight they will be separated by hundreds of miles, playing for the same goal on different coasts.

But Manatee’s and Southeast’s runs to a state championship can both be traced back to a September night at John Kiker Memorial Stadium.

Seems like a whole other season, doesn’t it?

Manatee won 31-24 that night, though looking back, the result wasn’t all that important. After all, both the Seminoles and Hurricanes are playing for regional titles tonight -- Southeast is at South Fort Myers for the Class 3A-Region 3 championship, and Manatee will be at Palm Bay Bayside playing for the Class 5A-Region 3 crown.

What matters most is what that game meant to each team.

A refresher: Southeast stormed to a 24-7 lead at the half before Manatee rallied with 24 unanswered points.

It was emotionally and physically draining, and games of that sort typically produce a number of aftershocks.

The Hurricanes, who were 2-0 at the time and not too far removed from their convincing win over Tampa Plant in a Kickoff Classic live broadcast on ESPN, could have lost their swagger and their footing.

The Seminoles, who had not beaten their fiercest rivals since 2006 and felt overlooked given the amount of attention heaved at Manatee, could have gone into the tank after such a wrenching loss.

Neither scenario played out.

The Hurricanes -- who, according to coach Joe Kinnan, may have been reading too many of their newspaper clippings -- have rolled right into the program’s fourth regional final in six years.

They wrapped up their first undefeated regular season since 1990, usurped Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas atop the state poll and won their first district title in four years, all while enduring a rash of injuries to starters such as Mike Blakely, Clinton Heaven, Anthony Lauro and Quenton Bundrage.

The Noles lost the following week to Venice, another Class 5A state power, but haven’t lost since. And anyone who may have questioned Southeast’s mettle after squandering that late lead to Manatee has been silenced by Southeast’s back-to-back one-point wins during the first two rounds of the playoffs.

That was the night Manatee was handed a stern reality check: Owning a share of the national limelight means you get everybody’s best every week of the season. And that was the night Southeast was given one, too -- numbers, be darned: We can play with anybody.

And that might be the sweetest part of the Manatee-Southeast rivalry. It may not be as balanced as it once was in terms of bodies on rosters, but it is still a game both sides circle, both sides want to win and, most importantly, a game that makes both sides better.

Perhaps that is why the Hurricanes and Seminoles are playing for regional titles tonight -- separated by miles, but one might not be there without the other.

John Lembo, sports reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2097.