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Battle of the unbeatens is upon us - Manatee vs. St. Thomas Aquinas

BRADENTON — There’s no formula to quantify the difficulty of an undefeated season.

After all, undefeated means, well, undefeated. When a team wins every time it suits up, you have to wonder how hard such a season can be.

The Manatee Hurricanes take a 13-0 record to Fort Lauderdale tonight to face St. Thomas Aquinas -- also 13-0 -- in a Class 5A state semifinal that should merit interest from high school football enthusiasts throughout the country, let alone the state.

But for Manatee, it’s been a difficult 13-0.

The Hurricanes didn’t have their most explosive player, Mike Blakely, for nearly their entire district run.

Sophomore Anthony Lauro, expected to fill the void left by Ace Sanders -- now a freshman receiver at South Carolina -- missed six weeks with a broken tibia.

Wide receiver Quenton Bundrage, yet another Division I talent, missed two weeks with a knee injury.

Defensive back Clinton Heaven missed four weeks with a broken jaw.

Manatee has spent most of the postseason playing without interior linemen Drakkar Wilson and Quinton Pompey, who went out with freakishly similar knee injuries during the first round of the playoffs.

Yet the Canes will be under the lights tonight at Brian Piccolo Stadium, playing for a spot in a second straight state championship game.

Beneath all that talent, you’ll find plenty of depth.

And character.

“It’s a credit to the leadership of the seniors and the kids,” said coach Joe Kinnan, “and other people stepping up and filling in for them.”

Manatee went into Venice, which the Hurricanes had not beaten since 2006, and won by 17 points, even though Blakely was used as nothing more than a decoy.

They’ve outlasted two high-power offenses in the playoffs without Pompey and Wilson, who together form the emotional core of Manatee’s defense. It may not have been pretty the past two weeks -- Kinnan called last week’s defensive performance at Bayside High the Canes’ worst of the season -- but it was enough.

They have had to rely on players no one considered before the season began. And despite all of this, the Hurricanes have excelled.

“We can win with those guys,” said Chuck Sandberg, who coaches Manatee’s receivers.

This time last season, the Hurricanes were marveling at their luck, wondering how they could endure the rigors of a full fall and not be blind-sided by any crippling injuries.

Everyone remained healthy, save for the occasional nicks and pings, en route to a spot in the state championship game.

In 2010, the Hurricanes haven’t been so lucky -- though they have been just as good.

“If we’re down, somebody is going to pick us up,” said Blakely, back for Manatee’s playoff run after missing the final two games of the regular season, “and helps us win the game.”

Whether it’s been the precocious play of sophomore quarterback Cord Sandberg, the solid work of unheralded guys such as Todd Johnson and Terry Evans, or the stellar play of Bundrage, who picked up the slack while Blakely was on the mend until the injury bug bit him too, the Hurricanes have persevered all year.

It may have looked easy.

Manatee knows it has been anything but.

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

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