By: Ken LaVicka
The weight of getting Fort Pierce Central back to the 7A regional finals is off of head coach Josh Shaffer. Now he has a much bigger worry: defending 7A state champion Manatee.
In perhaps the state's most highly-anticipated playoff re-match, undefeated Fort Pierce Central will host the Bradenton powerhouse Friday night at Lawnwood Stadium in Fort Pierce. Manatee will march into the game as the top-ranked team in the nation according to USA Today, ESPN, and MaxPreps. So much for Shaffer's feeling of relief.
“I was talking about it with my wife on Friday night that I had one pressure off because we're back where everyone expected us to be,” laughs Shaffer. “But then I put in the tape of Manatee and saw that front-four. It put new pressure on my chest.”
Shaffer is referring to dominant defensive line of Manatee, regarded as one of the best in the entire country thanks to junior DE Demarcus Christmas (Florida State commit) and senior DT Derrick Calloway (14 major Division I offers). The Hurricanes have held opponents under 13 points in 9 of their 12 games this season, including two shutouts.
The Manatee defense is over-powering, but they really do their most devastating damage on offense. Led by Mississippi State quarterback commit Cord Sandberg, the Hurricanes are averaging just under 52 points per game. Sandberg has a 73% completion percentage and has tossed 29 touchdowns to just one interception. He leads the team with 557 yards on the ground and has 10 rushing TD's.
The task ahead of Fort Pierce Central is daunting, but Shaffer's confidence is boosted by the performance his team put up against Manatee last year. With a berth in the state semifinals on the line, the Cobras suffered a 13-10 loss but held Manatee to a season-low 201 total yards, giving the eventual 7A champs their toughest test of the postseason.
“[Manatee] is more athletic at the skill positions this year, but we both know each other now,” says Shaffer. “We know them, they know us.”
Fort Pierce Central will need a supreme effort from its speedy and physical defense, but junior quarterback Sam Vaughn and Cincinnatti-bound RB Marcus Levy will shoulder a heavy load of responsibility to keep up with the high-scoring Hurricanes. Levy registered the Cobras lone touchdown against Manatee in the fourth quarter of last year's regional final.
One of the more intriguing aspects of Friday's game is that “#1” next to Manatee's name...nationally. Florida coaching legend Joe Kinnan, who has collected state titles in three different decades in his time in charge of the Hurricanes, is aiming for this 6th championship.
“When you're coming up through the coaching ranks, you always talk about what it would be like to face that 'mythical number one', what they would look like,” says Shaffer. “It's pretty neat to go against it.”
“I've seen [Manatee] play and they'd be #1 in my poll, too.”
Shaffer doesn't feel the need to mention Manatee's ranking to his players. They're aware.
“They know that. They embrace that.”
Survive and advance, that's the name of the game. Fort Pierce Central hasn't been an underdog all year long, but they will be on Friday night.
With the Manatee juggernaut rolling into Fort Pierce, Shaffer's has had an unusual message for this team: keep those jerseys on.
“We've been calling these our 'turn-in uniforms' games. We've been on the winning side of the first two, we don't want to be on the wrong side of it. Our guys don't want to turn-in those uniforms.”
The Cobras will try to make sure the laundry has to get done before next weekend.