National title hopes remain afloat as the Manatee Hurricanes knocked off yet another nationally ranked team, the Miami Central Rockets in a pulse-pounding 44-34 marathon.
The biggest threat to the Canes number one ranking was Grayson High School in Loganville, Georgia. The Rams had a good case as they beat Miami Central soundly, 35-3 back on August 31. But the Rams fell 22-7 to the Parkview Panthers of Lilburn, Georgia on Friday night.
Meanwhile the number three team in the Maxpreps Xcellent top 25 poll, JC Curtis of River Ridge, Louisiana dispatched district opponent East St. John 34-7. Curtis made headlines in Tampa after smashing Plant High School 33-3 last Friday. They moved up in the polls last week but the win against Parkview, nationally ranked number 1,159 is probably not going to be enough to overtake Manatee's win over Central.
It did not come easily by any means.
The defense set the tone by throwing back the Central offense 30 yards into its own end zone for a safety. Central went -12 yards on their first two possessions as Manatee jumped out to a 9-0 lead after senior defensive end, lining up at full back Marquis Dawsey rumbled in for a four-yard touchdown.
The Hurricanes never trailed in the game but there were two points in the game where the momentum swung heavily in Central's favor. The first came after Central orchestrated an 80-yard drive culminating in a junior Joseph Yearby touchdown run. That cut the lead to 23-14. Then again in the fourth quarter, junior quarterback Keith Reed threw a perfect pass into perfect coverage and completed it to junior Tavius Brown Jr. for a 30-yard touchdown. That made the score 37-28 with 10 minutes left to play.
But the Hurricanes did not relent. They had touchdown drives of 66, 51, and 80 in the second half, slamming the door closed on heroic Central efforts.
The biggest offensive play of the game came as Hurricane junior running back Trevon Walters took an inside handoff, bulldozed his way through the line, stepped over a reaching defender and raced 85 yards for the score. It effectively ended the game as it made it 44-34 with less than five minutes to play.
"It's funny, I felt like I was running slow the whole time," Walters said. "That play was for Blake (Keller), he was in my head the whole time."
Senior defensive end Blake Keller was injured on a special teams play and while he walked off the field, he was taken to a nearby hospital.
Unseen in the stat book was Walters' heads up play in the first half when a shotgun snap came rolling toward senior quarterback Cord Sandberg's feet. Walters stepped up, scooped the ball and turned what could have been a devastating turnonver into a three-yard gain.
The Hurricanes worked the middle of the Rocket defense all game long. If it wasn't an inside handoff, it was an inside pitch. It was the primary source of the Canes 220 yards of offense in the first half.
"They were putting seven guys in the box and we liked that versus our five linemen," head coach Joe Kinnan said.
The Rockets seemed to have it figured out in the second half as Manatee only gained two yards on their first two drives. However, Manatee stayed at it and sprung Walters again up the middle for 51 yards. All told Walter had 228 yards and two touchdowns, 105 rushing and 123 receiving. The receiving yards came exclusively from the inside pitches.
Sandberg threw touchdown passes of 20, 11, 54, and 51. He found junior receiver Marquel Hines twice for two touchdowns, one in the first half on a sharply-delivered slant, then again in the second half when he found Hines all by himself in the Rocket secondary.
The Hurricanes got a good test of their endurance Friday night against a resilient team that refused to go away.
"They have as good athletes at the skill position as anyone," Kinnan said. "They just have too much talent for us to run away with it."
The Hurricanes move to 3-0 on the season and have survived what was, on paper, the toughest part of their regular season schedule. They will no doubt be tested again but for now they seem to have cemented themselves at the top of the national polls.