LAKEWOOD RANCH — Having spent four years watching his teammates play in the PAL Bowl, Braden River High senior defensive-back Mick Olitsky was eager for his moment in the spotlight.
“I’ve been waiting for this since freshman year, so with the delay and everything, it was even more anticipated,” Olitsky said. “I just always watched everyone in front of me, the two classes in front of me, do it and I just knew that I wanted to do that. I live in Lakewood Ranch and I always came to the PAL Bowl game.”
Across the field, Out-of-Door Academy running back AJ Strong planned to use the game as an opportunity to prove to everyone that he was capable of competing against players from larger classifications.
And, then, there was Lakewood Ranch tight-end Jake Carlton who was looking forward to playing with some of the most talented players in Manatee County.
“It means a lot, because they chose the top of the top out of the county,” Carlton said. “It was a lot of fun to play with those kinds of talented players. It takes a load off of you when you’ve got those guys around you.”
Each player had his reasons for wanting to play in the annual charity game. But as they trotted onto the field at Lakewood Ranch High School, the players were united by a common goal — to bring a victory home to their respective county.
Manatee took control of the game early on, when standout wide receiver Ace Sanders, who led the Manatee Hurricanes to the Class 5A state title game this season, returned the opening kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown and never looked back as the senior all-stars defeated their Sarasota County counterparts 26-12 in the 18th annual Brad Price Memorial PAL Bowl Jan. 8.
Sarasota fumbled the ball on its opening possession, which was recovered by Braden River linebacker Trevor Barnes. Manatee capitalized on Sarasota’s miscue when Hurricanes quarterback Brion Carnes connected with Lakewood Ranch wide receiver Octavious Washington for a 63-yard touchdown, giving Manatee a 14-0 lead with 10:34 remaining in the first quarter.
Manatee further extended its lead in the second quarter when Southeast running back Waymon Bowden punched the ball in from 5 yards out, giving Manatee a 20-0 halftime advantage.
But in the second half, Strong brought Sarasota back. Using his speed and toughness, the senior rushed for 159 yards, 120 of which came in the second half, and propelled Sarasota’s second-half rally in which quarterbacks Justin Adler (Cardinal Mooney) and Travis Tritschler (Riverview) each scored on 1-yard runs.
Strong was named the MVP for Sarasota while Sanders received the honor for Manatee.
“I knew it was going to be fun because it’s an all-star game,” Strong said. “People kept asking me if I’m going to be able to do this against people who are my size, speed and competition and I came out and proved them wrong. That was pretty much my whole point in coming out and playing in the PAL Bowl.”
Manatee added an insurance touchdown with 3:38 remaining in the game, when Carnes connected with Carlton in the corner of the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown. With the win, Manatee earned its first PAL Bowl victory in three years, having been stunned by Sarasota, which leads the all-time series 10-8, 45-7 last season.
“They came into this game, our Manatee side did, about how the last time Manatee won a game was when we were in middle school, so it was really cool to come in here our senior year and win the first time since that long ago,” Carlton said.
Contact Jen Blanco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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