Alan Dell

Commentary: In time, Canes will appreciate this season

FORT LAUDERDALE

The pain will sting and linger for a while; it’s just that way when a dream is taken from you.

But when their hearts no longer feel heavy and their vision clears, the players on the Manatee High football team will see the 2010 season for what it was.

This was all about a journey and what you did along the way. The final destination is important, but what happened during the voyage is what will bring them the most satisfaction.

They did not reach their final stop, losing 31-7 to St. Thomas Aquinas on Friday night in a Class 5A state semifinal.

It wasn’t even that close. Aquinas had two touchdowns called back and dominated the game on both sides of the ball.

The Raiders baptized Manatee sophomore quarterback Cord Sandberg with five sacks and had him running for his life a good part of the night.

But he grew up as the game wore on, completing 12 of 18 passes for 200 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

For a sophomore who isn’t old enough to have a driver’s license, it was impressive.

He never lost his poise or confidence and maintained a demeanor that never showed weakness or displayed what he was thinking.

He had never taken a meaningful snap in a high school football game before this season. Until he went up against Aquinas, he never faced a program that some say should be playing junior college football with its talent and penchant for gathering players from all walks of life regardless of where they live.

“They had athletes and came out and ran man to man against us and beat us up front, so it was tough to throw and get the passing game going,” Sandberg said. “Eventually we got some of our skill guys in space and got some yardage, but we just couldn’t maintain it. We had our chances, but they played a great game.

“This was by far the best defense I played against. They had corners playing soft, but quick enough to come up and play the hitch. I am not happy about the result, but we got beat by a better team, and I will be better for the experience.”

There were enough national high school football polls this year to run somebody for president and keep every state happy.

But whichever way you cut it, Aquinas had to be the favorite in this game. The Raiders were hungry to the point of desperation, and there is nothing more dangerous than a wolf backed into a corner.

Manatee quarterbacks coach Chris Conboy, who had brought Sandberg along like he was his own son, couldn’t be more pleased with how he performed despite the rocky start.

“He handled things very well. They are a very good team and threw a lot at him,” Conboy said. “He made some big throws and handled the pressure well. We couldn’t stay on our blocks, and when we did we couldn’t match their speed on defense.”

The Canes faced heavy odds. Aquinas takes its football more serious than the state of Texas, where it’s a religion, and hadn’t lost at home since 2006.

The Canes suffered so many injuries this season that they needed a team of doctors and surgeons to sort things out; but somehow they got through it all, winning 13 straight games against some of the best opponents America had to offer.

It started with a victory on national television against an opponent who had beaten them in last year’s state championship game. Manatee won it and then traveled to Pennsylvania to take on another heralded opponent and won again and the ball kept rolling.

Now it’s over, and the disappointment will haunt them for a while. But these kids need to know the journey is not finished. It just takes a different route with different people.

We will read about some of these kids in colleges, though the majority of the seniors have likely played their last organized game of football.

But they are all tied together; they gave folks in Manatee County, young and old, from all walks of life a reason to believe their lives can be successful.

The friendships and bonds these impressionable teenagers formed will last a lifetime and are more valuable than the state championship ring they chased.

They won’t agree with that assessment now, but someday they will; more so perhaps when their own sons put on the same uniform they wore on this night.

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