Unbeatens Manatee, Palmetto take rivalry to new heights

PALMETTO -- During the last 35 years or so, Manatee and Palmetto football teams had one thing in common.

Frank Turner.

Turner was the Tigers' head coach in 1975 when they became the first prep football team to bring a state championship back to Manatee County.

He hopped across the river four years later and landed on Joe Kinnan's staff at Manatee, where he helped the Hurricanes win four state titles in nine years.

Then a chasm developed. Manatee morhped into a local and national power, while the Tigers went back to the final four in 1986 but never repeated the magic of '75.

Players began taking the Green Bridge and DeSoto Bridge out of Palmetto, and the program went nearly 60 years before finally defeating the Canes again in 2003.

Well, that was then.

Tonight's game between the Class 5A Tigers and 7A Hurricanes is the hottest ticket in town.

Both teams are 7-0.

Both are ranked No. 1 in the state in their classifications.

Bigger games lie ahead for each team. But tonight will add another layer to what is fast becoming a heated local rivalry.

"We grew up with most of the kids on the other side," Manatee defensive back Willie Smith said. "It's always been a rivalry across the bridge since Little League: (Manatee) Mustangs versus (Palmetto) Trojans. So it's been a high school Mustangs versus Trojans game."

On Sept. 17, 2003, Palmetto ruined Manatee's homecoming with a 20-17 win, the Tigers' first in the series since 1945. They repeated the feat the following season by capturing a triumph at Harllee Stadium.

Something was starting to happen. And just like that, it was gone. Manatee and Palmetto didn't meet again in the regular season until 2009, when Raymond Woodie was coaching the Tigers and Joe Kinnan was in the middle of his second stint piloting the Hurricanes and all the county schools decided to play each other.

And while the Hurricanes have won the past three meetings, the Tigers made things interesting last season, losing 29-26 en route to reaching the Class 5A state final four.

Now they're two of the best teams in the state.

"Everything I heard was Manatee, Manatee, Manatee. That was all I heard," said Palmetto receiver Cory Crawford, who was born in Bradenton. "We're coming up and everything, and that makes me feel good. I'm a part of building a program.

"It's going to give the team a lot of confidence if we beat them. ... Last year, we kind of shook them up a little bit."

Palmetto coach Dave Marino has been talking about winning championships and pushing Palmetto into Manatee's echelon since he took over the program prior to the start of the 2010 season.

It sounded a bit ambitious at the time, considering the Tigers were more than 20 years removed from a deep playoff run.

"At first, I was like, 'Dang, coach, we're going to have to put in a lot of work, though'" Crawford said. "Then again, we have to believe in ourselves that it can be done. I can believe it now. We believe it now."

The distance between the programs has shrunken considerably. Manatee rolled in 2009 (35-3) and '10 (56-36) before last year's close game at Harllee Stadium, which is a reason the hype this season has been ratcheted up so much.

"Last year really set the mark. We had a chance last year and ended up losing by a field goal," Marino said. "That really got these guys to believe in what we've been preaching all along, that we have the capability to be a powerhouse in this area and throughout the state of Florida. This is the next step."

A rivalry isn't a rivalry until both sides have landed their share of punches. But given last year's tense affair and the start each team is off to this season, this one was off to a good start.

"They've put some points on us the last couple of years," Manatee quarterback Cord Sandberg said. "Definitely a big-time rivalry. ... They have the athletes to compete for state championships year in, year out, like us.

"They're trying to be the best they can be. They're obviously going to try and win every game they play. And we're on their schedule, so they're trying to beat us."

No Manatee County team has defeated Manatee since Southeast did so in the 2006 season opener.

The Hurricanes have had a stranglehold on the area the past six years, and that dominance has translated into the program's fifth state title last year and a No. 1 national ranking by ESPN, MaxPreps and USA Today.

Now the Tigers will try and take them down and score a huge victory for their program and turn this ever-growing rivalry up a notch.

"A lot of these guys grew up where their friends went to Manatee and they chose to stay here," Marino said. "They believed in us. ... We need to deliver a win over Manatee to really get those guys to achieve everything they wanted to achieve in their athletic careers in high school."

Related stories from Bradenton Herald