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Commentary: In Manatee County prep sports, familiar faces impress

BRADENTON

It wasn’t an unfamiliar sight seeing Bradenton Christian’s boys and Southeast’s girls playing big basketball games in late February, just like it wasn’t unfamiliar seeing Saint Stephen’s boys soccer team make a long run through the Class 2A playoffs or Manatee’s wrestling team bring a fistful of medals back from the state tournament.

The winter season has become their season, and this winter wasn’t much different.

What made it special, however, was it wasn’t supposed to be just like the others.

This was their year to struggle and scratch and build toward tomorrow while taking their lumps today.

Didn’t happen.

The Panthers and Seminoles hosted regional championship games. The Falcons made the state final four, and the Hurricanes placed three wrestlers on the medal podium, one in the finals, and finished sixth in the state in stacked Class 3A.

“We’re happy,” Canes coach Andy Gugliemini said at The Lakeland Center.

He was talking about his guys. But he could have been talking about the others, too.

The Panthers limped out of their holiday tournament with a losing record and featured just one player -- senior Daniel Magley -- with a wide breadth of varsity experience.

But they won their district and went back the regional finals, BCS’ home since 2004.

The Seminoles were stung when they failed to make the finals of their holiday tournament and with two freshmen in the starting five, they weren’t supposed to do much in the playoffs.

But with venerable coach John Harder striding the sideline, Southeast won its 12th straight regional title and played into the Region 3 championship game, where they rallied before losing by six to a Tampa Catholic team that won its second straight state title.

Remember last year, when the Falcons were blasted in the first round of the regionals playoffs by Tampa Prep?

Neither do we -- because this year, Saint Stephen’s roared to a district title, blanked the Terrapins in the second round of the tournament and made the Class 2A state semifinals for the second time in three years. Not bad for a team laden with freshmen and sophomores.

After a 19-21 dual-meet record, the Hurricanes flexed some muscle in the postseason, sending six wrestlers to state. Travis Fulk won a medal (his first), as did Alex Doran (his fourth) and Quinn Tibbetts (a state runner-up at heavyweight after losing the district final), and the guys who didn’t earned Manatee points during the consolation rounds.

Of course, we did see some new blood this season. Lakewood Ranch’s girls and boys hoops teams made the regional playoffs, and its boys soccer team played into its first regional final. And Braden River’s boys basketball team won its first district title.

But this winter once again belonged to the usual suspects -- even if no one figured that it would.

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