High School Sports

Prep football | Midwestern duo has brought life to Braden River program; Manatee gets new coach first crown

The seeds for what has become a fairy-tale season for the Braden River football team were planted in the Midwest.

The Pirates are 8-0 after Friday's 38-14 victory over Palmetto that provided Braden River its first district championship in school history.

Braden River head coach Curt Bradley grew up in Missouri, and offensive coordinator Eric Sanders is from Iowa. They met at Northern Iowa, where they both played football, and have been friends ever since.

They are both passionate about the game and taken advantage of every opportunity to improve at their craft.

Bradley and Sanders were graduate assistant coaches together at Syracuse under Doug Marrone, where they coached former Tampa Bay Bucs receiver Mike Williams.

They went their separate ways for awhile, but when Bradley was hired as the Braden River head coach three years ago, the first call he made was to Sanders, who was an assistant NIU.

He felt Sanders had the background and mind to run his offense at a high level of proficiency.

It was a good decision. Sanders was a four-year starter at quarterback for Northern Iowa and had great success. He quarterbacked the 2007 NIU team that was ranked No. 1 in Division I-AA all season until it lost in the postseason to Delaware, which had a quarterback named Joe Flacco, now with the Baltimore Ravens.

"He knows the game very well and is great with kids. This is his offense we run. I don't get involved in that," said Bradley, who is the Pirates' defensive coordinator. "Coach Sanders does a tremendous job and makes my life easier. He does a great job of game planning."

Sanders made good use of his tight end, rare in high school football, and often had receivers wide open.

"I thought Palmetto had the best defense we played all year, and we felt we had to pass and run. They are very athletic and their linebackers can run," Sanders said. "We felt like we had to have balance between running and throwing and take some shots downfield. We also have a versatile tight end (Ryan Neuzil), who plays basketball. He catches a lot of balls in practice so we knew he could catch. Mainly we felt we needed every weapon possible and tried to distribute the ball to everyone."

Sanders said he feels he has the perfect quarterback to do that in junior Jacob Huesman, who has 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions on the season. He completed 15 of 25 passes for 316 yards and two touchdowns with an interception.

"That interception is on me. There were only 15 seconds left in the first half, and we decided to take a shot. Jacob did exactly what I asked him to do, throw it up and take a chance," Sanders said.

Sanders spent the night after the program's biggest victory at home studying game film. After getting his maintenance duties done at the school, Bradley went home to sleep.

"I didn't have any problems sleeping because we put a lot of work into the game plan and you are worn out after the week," Bradley said. "I spent some time with family and friends and just went to sleep."

Manatee marches on

John Booth surveyed the players gathered around him Friday and promised he would keep his speech brief.

He congratulated Manatee's football team on winning the Class 8A-District 7 title, the Hurricanes' sixth straight. He told them to enjoy the weekend but to also be careful. He told them never to take wins or championships for granted.

Then he told them one last thing.

"I'm proud of you," said Booth, in his first season as Manatee's head coach.

While district championships have become annual happenings for the Canes, this one was special. Not only was it the first one as a head coach for Booth, a 2000 graduate of Manatee hired in July to follow the legendary Joe Kinnan, but it came two months after Manatee opened the regular season with a deflating defeat against Ware County, Ga.

It was Manatee's first regular-season loss since Week 3 of the 2011 season against New Jersey's Don Bosco Prep.

"We had to face adversity," said wide receiver Kavious Price, who had three catches for 72 yards during Manatee's 35-0 win Friday at Palm Harbor University. "Coach always talked about how we were going face it and what we were going to do after it all turns out. So this is pretty big."

Manatee has won eight straight since that loss and opens the Region 2 playoffs at home Friday, Nov. 14 against Fort Pierce Central, the runner-up from District 8.

It's familiar territory for the Hurricanes and Cobras, who have met in the last three postseasons. Manatee won regional titles at Fort Pierce Central's expense in 2011 and '12. but the Cobras knocked the Hurricanes out of the regional semifinals last year in Fort Pierce.

Days before Friday's games set up the first-round playoff pairings, Manatee linebacker Nashon Smith talked about the possibility of playing the Cobras again.

"That would be great to have the homefield advantage," Smith said, "and play that team."