ORLANDO — Manatee High's football team scored on its first possession Friday night, driving 58 yards and chewing up four minutes of clock before punching it in on a rush to the pylon by junior quarterback Cord Sandberg.
It foreshadowed what kind of night it would be for the Hurricanes in the Class 7A final at the Citrus Bowl. All three phases of the game were clicking for the Canes as they overwhelmed Jacksonville First Coast 40-0 to win its fifth state championship.
Manatee (13-2) ground out 230 yards of rushing offense while throwing for 200. Sandberg was 11-of-15 passing for 190 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for 80 yards and a touchdown. Junior Anthony Lauro gained more than 50 yards on the ground and 75 in the air, including a pair of touchdowns. Senior running back Leon Allen led the rushing attack with 85 yards on 13 carries. He also caught three passes for 60 yards.
"This is amazing," said Lauro. "We worked so hard to get here, and we know what it's like to lose here, but we came out motivated tonight."
The Canes lost to Tampa Plant on the same field two years ago in their last state championship bid. Now they have another title to add to their storied collection, having won it all in 1983, '85, '89 and '92.
Manatee's option game was devouring the Buccaneers defense Friday night, getting the corner on outside runs, busting six or seven yards up the middle with regularity. Sandberg executed the option to near-perfection, running right at a defender, looking him right in the eye and then pitching it back to his running back at the very last second.
"We had success running inside, early, that helped set up the outside runs and the passes that we were able to hit," said Manatee head coach Joe Kinnan.
On defense, the Canes forced four sacks, had two interceptions (one in the red zone, one in the end zone), forced a fumble and pressured freshman Buccaneer quarterback DeAndre Johnson relentlessly.
"We knew they couldn't run the ball against us," Kinnan said.
First Coast (13-1) managed 114 yards of offense, offset by a grand total of minus-66 yards rushing.
Even Manatee's special teams chipped in. Senior defensive back Purvis Goff blocked a punt deep in Buccaneers territory and the Canes recovered it in the end zone to make it 23-0. Senior place-kicker Nick Tankersley went 2-for-3 on field goals and booted all but one of his eight kickoffs into the endzone.
First Coast just could not hold up under the defensive pressure by Manatee. Juniors Derrick Calloway, Blake Keller and Marquis Dawsey were a constant presence in the Buccaneers' backfield. Any time First Coast would get something going, the Canes defense hit them right back.
Senior First Coast receiver Brandon Brooks made a great play coming back to wrestle an underthrown pass away from Canes senior defensive back Jalen Holmes. Two plays later, Holmes picked off a Johnson pass in the endzone.
In the second quarter, First Coast blocked a field goal and recovered it deep in Manatee territory. The very next play, junior defensive back Willie Smith picked off another Bucs pass.
Things went from bad to worse for First Coast in the second half. Manatee was playing great and First Coast, well, wasn't. The Bucs perpetually found themselves backed up in 3rd-and-long scenarios — they faced a 3rd-and-30, a 3rd-and-26 and a 3rd-and-39 in the second half.
The win validated the grueling schedule Manatee faced this year.
"We've played a lot of tough teams this year," said Sandberg.
"We are a battle-hardened team," said Kinnan. "This win has a lot to do with that tough schedule we faced."
The Hurricanes lost two nail-biters early in the season to Our Lady of Good Counsel of Maryland and Don Bosco Prep of New Jersey, both nationally ranked teams. However, the Canes endured, battled through maybe the toughest bracket in any of the FHSAA classes, including a 19-14 win over Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer in the state semifinals, to get to the championship.
They did not disappoint.