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The past two years, a Bradenton powerhouse has ended Seminole's season. Tonight, the Warhawks are out to stop that trend.
By BOB PUTNAM
© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 16, 2001
The distance between Seminole and Bradenton isn't that far.
The distance, however, between Seminole and Bradenton's two football teams, Manatee and Southeast, is.
At least that's what Warhawks coach Sam Roper believed nearly a decade ago.
In 1993, Roper, along with Jerry Austin of Northeast and Bob Stephens, then the coach at Countryside, decided to play an independent schedule rather than journey across the Sunshine Skyway to enter a district that included Manatee and Southeast. Roper and Austin also did the same thing from 1985-87.
"We took a lot of heat from a lot of people for making that decision," Roper said. "By playing, we wouldn't have been doing a thing to help our kids. What are you doing and proving going down there and getting beat 60-0? Back then, we couldn't have competed."
That was then. Now things are different.
Fast forward to tonight. Seminole is playing -- yes, playing! -- Manatee at 7:30. Better yet, it's a playoff game, the Class 5A region semifinals.
But to find out just how far the Warhawks have come the past eight years against their counterparts from Bradenton, consider that they truly believe they can keep their playoff run going with a win.
"We're as ready as we'll ever be," Seminole senior linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said.
The Warhawks have proof to show they're prepared. Seminole has played Southeast in the playoffs the past two seasons. Sure, the Warhawks lost both games, but they made progress. In fact, in last season's regional final, Seminole led 17-14 at halftime and kept highly touted Southeast quarterback Adrian McPherson in check for one half before falling.
"We can't ever seem to get out of the way of Bradenton," Roper said. "We always seem to cross paths with some team from down there. But we're starting to compete and the gap is closing a little bit more."
Roper said it will never be totally equal. Manatee County teams have freshman football, incredible depth and strong community backing. But with the arrival of another public school, Lakewood Ranch, which dispersed the talent in Bradenton, the playing level is more even.
Still, being even is one thing, winning is another. The last time a Pinellas County team beat Southeast or Manatee was in 1986 (Pinellas Park and Dunedin beat Manatee).
"Whenever you play one of those teams, Southeast or Manatee, you're going to have a tough time," Roper said. "We have to play smart and do a good job of rotating guys in and out."
Playing Manatee is different than Southeast. Whereas the Seminoles play a wide-open offense, the Hurricanes prefer a ground-oriented attack.
That suits the Warhawks, whose strength on defense is their front seven, particularly the linebackers, Jackson, Joey Fabrizio and T.J. Layfield. Seminole has yielded a county-low 68 points this season and was No. 1 against the run.
"I think we can do a good job of stopping them," Jackson said. "We've watched them on film, know what they can do and we have the guys who can get the job done."
One of the films the Warhawks watched was last week's region quarterfinal game between St. Petersburg and Manatee. The Green Devils, despite a 3-7 record, scored 14 points and made a game of it until the fourth quarter.
"That's good for the county," Roper said. "St. Petersburg just didn't have the depth. But they scored 14 points. Before, a team from this county would have never crossed the goal line. That's encouraging. It shows how far we've come."