BRADENTON – St. Thomas Aquinas and Manatee High have a recent history that can't be ignored. Even though the schools are separated by a three and a half hour drive, have never played in the regular season and don't generally have a chance to square off unless both make the state semi-finals in one of the most competitive football states in the country, each team has nonetheless managed to end the other's undefeated season and national championship dreams once in the last four years.
|Auburn RB Mike Blakely playing for Manatee in 2010|
In 2009, the Raiders were considered unbeatable. They were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the nation, just like the Hurricanes are right now. Manatee was a huge underdog when they hosted St. Thomas in that year's semi-final. The Raiders, led by FSU's Lemarcus Joyner and Miami's Phillip Dorsett, had won 37-games in a row and were on their way to back-to-back state and national titles when Manatee, led by current Auburn RB Mike Blakely and Nebraska QB Brion Carnes, shocked the high school football world with a 29-20 win at Hawkins Stadium.
Manatee had been dominant that year outside of a 43-29 loss to a Venice team that was led by current Florida Gator star Trey Burton, but weren't considered up to the task of beating the vaunted St. Thomas juggernaut. The 'Canes would go on to lose a 21-14 heartbreaker to a very good Tampa Plant team, which featured Florida State RB James Wilder Jr., in the state final, but the Aquinas win was a championship in and of itself.
In fact, the final outcome propelled both Plant and Manatee into the highest stratospheres of prep football, as both started out the 2010 season at or near the top of most national polls when they faced off in an ESPN-televised pre-season kickoff classic. Manatee routed Plant 48-10 and talk began to circulate that they could win the area's first mythical high school national championship.
Manatee's current star QB Cord Sandberg was just a sophomore, but when Blakely's time was cut short by nagging ankle injuries, the soon-to-be star stepped up and began building a career that has included both a state title and a scholarship to Mississippi State. The 'Canes were 13-0 when they made the trip south to take on Aquinas that year, who took their revenge on the Hurricanes (ranked 2nd in the ESPN/Powerade poll at the time), who were without star DT Quinton Pompey (currently playing for Iowa State), winning 31-7 before going on to win the state title (by beating Plant) and finishing first in one of the national polls.
|Iowa State DT Quinton Pompey against Plant in 2010|
Of course there's no such official title as High School National Championship, but ever since USA Today began ranking prep football programs throughout the nation in 1982, the teams that have finished the season No. 1 have been claiming the crown. Today, with a virtual industry of prep recruiting, aided by high-speed internet and a much larger television platform, comparing teams is easier and more prolific.
Currently, there are three major polls that offer high school rankings: USA Today, Maxpreps.com (a division of CBS Sports) and ESPN/Powerade. And while they often disagree on who's number one in a sport where so few of the top teams meet head to head, all three currently agree that the 'Canes are the best in the land.
Enrollment increases pushed Tampa Plant into the 8A class in 2011 where they were 15-0 and won the state title, before going 13-1 this year, losing to Dr. Phillips (Orlando) last week. St. Thomas Aquinas went 10-3 last season, losing 6-3 to Dwyer, one week before they would have faced Manatee. This season, the Raiders lost 20-10 to Don Bosco Prep (New Jersey) who were the defending national champions, finishing first in every poll last season, when they also beat Manatee; and then again to Miramar 27-24, who Manatee had routed 41-6 on national television in the season opener this year.
The other common opponent between the teams in 2012 is 12-2 Cypress Bay, a very good 8A squad whose only losses are to St. Thomas 43-17, and to Manatee 42-20. Manatee's road to a 15-0 season, a 6th state title – back to back ones at that – as well as a first place national finish in every poll, goes through Ft. Lauderdale this weekend in a game against a familiar foe. St. Thomas, who's won six state titles, is not used to having five losses in two years and what would be seen as banner seasons for most programs, has been disappointing for one so familiar with ultimate success. Knocking of the top-ranked team in the nation, while reclaiming the state crown would surely go a long way toward easing those woes.
For two decades, St. Thomas Aquinas has been among the most notable high school programs in the country. They have produced a staggering number of college standouts, as well as nearly two-dozen NFL stars, including Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, former Bears RB and Brian's Song inspiration Brian Piccolo and current Pro-Bowl DT Geno Atkins. Coach Joe Kinnan's program at Manatee – a public school program from a modestly-sized town – is approaching a similar level of lore. A win Friday night, which would put them one game away from tying St. Thomas in state titles, while joining them as one of the few in Florida to have ever repeated as St. Champions or finish ranked No. 1 in the nation, would be a big step in that direction. When these two elite teams meet, expect nothing short of another historic contest.
The Manatee vs. St. Thomas Aquinas game can be viewed on a live webcast at manateefootball.com Friday night at 7:30 p.m.