PLAYERS TO WATCH:
There is one team standing in Manatee's way of repeating as 7A south champions. There is one place where Manatee has never won a playoff game.
Both have come together. The St. Thomas Aquinas Raiders host the 'Canes at Brian Piccolo Field - where Manatee has not won - ever.
In the past, teams from Bradenton have not fared well against the Raiders - but this is not the past. This is the present and this Manatee team has survived the loss of two key players to injury and just kept right on moving.
Mississippi State-bound Cord Sandberg has quietly guided the 'Canes to a 26-game winning streak dating back to last year's 22-16 loss to Don Bosco Prep. Against the state of Florida, Manatee has not lost to a team from the sunshine state since - Dec. 10 - and that was to St. Thomas Aquinas.
That's Sandberg's only post-season defeat in three years.
The 'Canes front line defensively is stellar across the board. Led by tackles Demarcus Christmas (committed to Florida Stateand Derrick Calloway along with ends Blake Kellor and Marquis Dawsey - Manatee will bring pressure on STA QB John O'Korn
The loss of Willie Smith in the secondary for Manatee has a cause for concern, but the play of 6-2 ATH Greg Reaves has been admirable.
Losing Anthony Lauro in the third game of the season didn't slow down the 'Canes - it just opened the door for junior Trevon Walters (1099 yards, 18 TD) freshman Johnnie Lang (205 yards, 3 TD) - whom Manatee coach Joe Kinnan compares to Mike Blakeley. Look for Ja'Juan Pollack to have a big game for the 'Canes.
On the flip side, the play of O'Korn has vastly improved since a controversial loss to Miramar in overtime. The Raiders lost also to Don Bosco Prep - due to special teams miscues.
O'Korn likes to hand the ball off to Fred Coppet - who may or may not be injured - according to some reports.
The biggest test for the Raiders will be the offensive line play of Kyle Schafenacker, Zack Provin and Austin Bland. These three will be tested by Manatee's front four.
The play of Mark Barr and Franklyn Richardson from the wide receiver position will also be huge. If the Raiders have a hard time running the ball against the Manatee defense, these two have to be able to take advantage of Manatee's perceived weakness in the secondary.
Defensively, Joey Bosa and company will have to keep the high-powered Manatee offense in check and hope the LB play of Lance Virgile and Scott Northcutt can stop the run. James Crawford and Isaac Brutton will be tested and tested often.
ANALYSIS: Is there anything more that hasn't already been said about Manatee? The Hurricanes have defeated every team they've played this season by double digits, and only Class 6A semifinalist Miami Central (a 44-34 loser to MHS in Week 3) has been within 22 points.
Fort Pierce Central entered last Friday night's regional final unbeaten and stumbled out with a 51-0 loss at home.
Manatee has so many weapons in their arsenal it may drive a defensive coordinator crazy.
Then there's St. Thomas Aquinas.
In the post-season, the Raiders tend to step it up a notch. In fact, Manatee has won just once against St. Thomas in the post-season.
But what a win it was - knocking off the unbeaten Raiders (who were ranked #1 in almost every poll) in 2009.
Quietly, the Raiders continue to improve, entering this game the winners of eight straight. They have put up at least 38 points in every game but one in that run, but Manatee is a different animal. It isn't often St. Thomas is a heavy underdog to anyone, but that might be the case this week.
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