BRADENTON – In round 2 playoff action this Friday, the Manatee Hurricanes are set to face Venice, yet again, in what has become something of a playoff ritual among the two 7A powerhouses, though Manatee has enjoyed the upper hand as of late. Meanwhile, Palmetto travels to Lake Wales to take on a tough team that eliminated Southeast last Friday night in a surprise upset.
The Hurricanes have beaten the Indians in their last five meetings, including a dominant 56-27 victory on October 19, after not beating them in three years, while current Gator star Trey Burton was at the helm for Venice. The Indians will have to dig deep in returning to Hawkins Stadium after such a convincing defeat just over a month ago, but there are a few bright spots. 27 points is the second highest total a team has been able to lay on the Hurricanes' defense this year, and the Indians were able to rush for well over 200 yards in that meeting, including 189 from QB Kale Youtzy, who will have to have a monster game if they are to challenge Manatee, who is the top-ranked prep squad in the nation.
Manatee's offense is averaging more than 51 points per game. Containing that kind of scoring will mean controlling the time of possession, which isn't easy against a defense that specializes in the three and out. Conventional wisdom says that to beat Manatee, you're going to have to hold them to less than 40 points – which no team has done so far this year – while simultaneously putting up more points than anyone has scored. Miami Central put up 34 in week 3 and they entered the season as the No. 2 ranked team in the country. Barring something completely unforeseen, the 'Canes should have an easy go of it on Friday night.
Palmetto on the other hand, has their work cut out for them this week. Lake Wales specializes in controlling the ball, slowly moving the sticks down the field while they eat up plenty of time on the clock, and have played very well after a slow start this season. Southeast never really got a chance to get things going in a surprising 20-17 loss last week that ended their title hopes. Though the Seminoles were in the game until the very end (and suffered some dubious officiating), they just couldn't seem to get enough possessions to win the football game.
Palmetto's defense will have to get the Highlanders off the field early and often if their offense is going to be at its most effective. They'll also need to control the ball, which will mean RB Josh Hicks will need more than the 49-yards he rushed for last week against Auburndale. If Hicks can go over 100, grinding it out at four and five a pop, Palmetto's chances improve significantly.
Sophomore QB Chris Tuten had a breakout game last Friday and seems to be emerging as a seasoned QB. If he can make good decisions Friday night and not force balls into coverage, Palmetto's trio of D-1 caliber receivers (Shaq Harris, E.J Burston and Cory Crawford) should be able to dominate Lake Wales' secondary. Considering that just three games back, Lake Wales was blanked 21-0 by the team the Tigers just beat, there's no reason Dave Marino's boys shouldn't be able to pick up this win, even playing on the road.
If Palmetto is victorious, they'll face the winner of East Lee County and Immokalee. In truth, there's not another team in their bracket that's as talented as the Tigers, and with Southeast out of the way, the path is clear for the Tigers to set up a return match with Miami Norland, who ended their season in last years' state semi-finals. Assuming the 'Canes are successful Friday, they'll likely face Ft. Pierce Central next, an undefeated team, but one that hasn't faced nearly as tough of competition as Manatee has.
Two previous foes, Dwyer and St. Thomas Aquinas, could be headed toward a showdown to decide Manatee's semi-final opponent, though both are matched tough this week. Lakeland was upset by 6-5 Buchholz last week and Manatee's 2011 state championship opponent, Jacksonville First Coast, was also knocked out. Osceola, who Manatee stomped 49-14 in the preseason kickoff classic, went 10-0 this season and along with Plant City Durant, who are also undefeated, are considered to be Manatee's most likely opponent in this year's finals.