Manatee High School isn’t “just” a high school and Manatee Football isn’t “just” a football team. They are both virtually the center of the universe for those that live near the campus or those that have walked through its hallowed halls throughout the century-plus years of its existence. It may mean a little less to some, but take in a practice and watch the people line up with coolers and lawn chairs for a Monday practice when there’s no visible end in sight to the summer, and you’ll see that to many–Manatee High School is everything. Being a Hurricane from Manatee High School is a lifestyle, not just a choice for convenient rooting interest or communal pride.
John Booth took over for the legendary Joe Kinnan two years ago, and while things haven’t been as smooth off-the-field he would like them, Manatee’s players and coaches that are on the field and committed to their beloved ‘Canes are moving full speed ahead with their winning tradition. People may come-and-go signifying change, but one thing remains constant more so than winning–the love for Manatee, its football program and its people that make it possible–will never go away.
Chad Choate is Manatee’s Defensive Coordinator and knows a little bit about Manatee and it’s role in the community and on the football field. As you will soon find out, knowing a “little bit” is truly an understatement. Choate and his fellow coaches know more than a little bit. The 2003 graduate of Manatee along with Head Coach John Booth–a 2000 graduate–are exactly the kinds of folks that grew up down the street from campus idolizing and dreaming of being ‘Canes as students, players—and now leaders of the next generation.
With Choate returning to his roots, the obvious question is posed–and the obvious answer is given. Coaching at your alma mater, especially one with the tradition such as Manatee, has to be dream come true for him to be in this position. We’re sure that if the same question was posed to Booth, as well as the other grads on staff, they would tell us the same exact thing–and mean every syllable of it.
“Oh, it absolutely is. When I graduated college in 2007 and first set out to coach, I set a goal that I wanted to be a defensive coordinator by the age of 30. I got the chance the with Manatee and with John (Booth) and that was a goal that I had set out for myself and I’m excited about–I’m exactly where I want to be, for sure.” As we mentioned earlier, Choate is a 2003 graduate of Manatee. He also a 2007 graduate of the University of South Florida.
There’s a lot invested with both he and Booth Manatee grads on the staff–plus many more. The term “investment” is used and most-approprite in this sense because growing up in Bradenton or growing up a Hurricane means it’s an investment from start-to-finish. Physical and emotional. It’s pretty much a given that if your last name is Choate, you attended the school going back decades. His family has been referred to as the “First Family” of Manatee High School in some cases, even. Choate’s Grandfather was Principal for 16 years and spent over 30 on campus as a teacher and administrator in addition to aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. that all went there as well. He joins his Head Coach John Booth along with others on staff that played and graduated from the school.
“Absolutely,” said Choate. “You’ve got both Booth brothers (say that three times fast) that graduated from Manatee back in 2000, and our DB’s coach Domonique Dunbar who graduated in 2000 as well, you’ve got myself obviously and then you’ve got our D-Line coach (Walt Smith) who has put three kids through Manatee High School, so he’s been invested for a long time–Coach (Dennis) Stallard’s been here forever (laugh’s and points out accurately that he’s been at the school since the early 90’s.) so we’ve got coaches on staff that are beyond invested.”
Choate joined the staff in 2012 after a stint at Braden River and then a year-and-a-half coaching with his cousin, Josh Smithers at Cardinal Mooney. While at Mooney, he got his feet wet as the defensive coordinator and that gave him the experience that he needed to make a run at the position. After coaching linebackers, Choate was named the interim DC in January of 2015 following longtime coach, Jim Phelan. Although there was change at the top, changing coordinators can cause as much chaos as changing the head coach.
“There was definitely change and there was turnover, but it was change that was necessary. We all know what it takes to play Manatee Football. That’s one of the reasons I stayed was because of John. We all grew up together right down the street from each other. I knew the direction the program was going to go and that Manatee Football was going to be in good hands. We are all-in for sure.”
In order for a transition to take place as significant as the one that happened, there has to be that element of being think skinned–especially at a place like Manatee that is beloved and sometimes little too much like a family–which can be messy–even though it’s almost-always based out of love. There have been some bumps along the way to say the least in Booth’s first couple of seasons, but a program like Manatee doesn’t breakdown over mere bumps in the road.
All you need to do is look at their record under Booth since he took over–here’s a hint: it’s good. The ‘Canes are 21-5 his first two seasons, winners of back-to-back district championships and a regional championship.
“You’ve got to trust in what your plan is and the way that you want to run the program,” said Choate. “That was the first thing that I saw. I know I trusted what John wanted to do and he saw that–and from the defensive side of things specifically, I know I trust what we’re doing and the direction we’re headed.”
Choate also knows that starting his second season after following someone like Coach Phelan, who had been leading the defense for years, is not unlike (in a sense) what Booth was experiencing transitioning from the Coach Kinnan Era.
“They are big shoes to fill–no question. The defense has always been very good at Manatee, although I think it’s the offense that receives all the glamour–which is fine with me,” said Choate as he laughs. “It-is-what-it-is–but at the same time I harp on it all the time we aren’t an offense-versus-defense type of team, we need both to win. They need us to stop teams and we need them to score.”
When your community and your school are intimately intertwined as much as the City of Bradenton and Manatee High School are, there’s plenty of places you can seek support. Sometimes completely solicited, and other times horrifically and inconveniently un-solicited. Much like families in the sporting and non-sporting sense, they’ve had their “moments” shall we say, but family-is-family.
You remember that old saying, “you can’t choose who you’re related to, but you can choose who you call family”, right? Well, in Choate’s case–and in the Booth’s case that means both situations apply. There’s genetics AND extended family that bleed red,white and blue. That family is large and it’s tough to keep in-touch with them. But what about for those that are family-by-proxy? The recent off-the-field events may have swayed a few away, but in the end when it comes to Manatee High School and Manatee Football, you are a part of the family whether it has been years since they’ve seen you or not.
“It’s all about believing in your system and believing in how you want to run the program. It’s about projecting the image to the public and the community that this what Manatee Football should be about. I think that’s the one thing if you talk to the people around us in the community know that’s the one thing we’ve tried to is reach out to the alumni and get those folks back into the system and get them invested again in Manatee Football. Not that it was Coach Kinnan or anyone else that DIDN’T want them around in the first place, but I think it was something that had kind become an aura here. We welcome them back to come into the program and see the character development and the changes that are being made to the facility, even. The guys that were here even fifteen years ago might barely recognize it with all of the things done, so that’s been a big push for us.”
As Choate alluded to earlier, when you mention Manatee’s storied history, it includes guys on the offensive side of the ball like Tommy Frazier making it big, but Choate reiterates the whole-team concept that all three–not two–parts of the game are needed in order to win games consistently. It doesn’t matter to Choate–nor anyone on the staff for that matter–how they get the job done. At Manatee, it’s about getting the job done, period–from top to bottom–taking the time to invest in offense, defense AND special teams.
“No matter where you are, the offense is going to get the vast majority of the love–and that’s football. Tom Brady is probably the most-recognized player in the NFL–because, why?–he throws touchdowns all over the place. There’s no question there’s been success here at Manatee with some of the players that have played throughout the years. As of right now, five guys went on to college from last year’s squad and probably a couple more as the year progresses. The reality is–there’s three sides to a team–and in my opinion, there’s nobody that does a better job with special teams than Coach Stallard–we invest time in that. We go to meetings to watch film on that and we invest time on the practice field in that area. Long snappers don’t get love, but we didn’t have a bad snap last year, we didn’t have a punt blocked and we didn’t have a kick returned or punt returned on us, either.”
The offense certainly gets attention and with good reason. This year the ‘Canes return QB AJ Colagiovanni who threw for 2,500 yards last season, plus will feature 2018 running back Josh Booker, who transferred from Sarasota High School after leading the county in rushing. They’ll also have wide receiver Tarique Milton, who caught 50 passes for 800+ yards and eight touchdowns, but they’ve also got players on the defensive side like Garrett Ware, Sir Williams and Jacob Main on the defensive side who combined for 125 tackles and will be major factors in Choate’s defensive system again this season.
“Offense gets their love, and rightfully so–but our love comes when the scoreboard says zero.” Which is exactly what Manatee did twice last season, once in-district, the other coming against rivals Southeast. The ‘Canes dominated district play after stumbling out of the gates at 1-2 giving up an average of 31 points per contest to Hoover, Palmetto and Tallahassee-Lincoln respectively. Once Manatee went back to their corners and got their cuts and brasses worked on, they came out swinging and knocked their district competition all the way to the ground. The ‘Canes outscored their six opponents 282-54. Although the Lincoln game set the tone, the ‘Canes season ended up in Orlando following their loss to Dr. Phillips in the regional semis–a team they had defeated the previous season in Orlando in the regional finals.
“That set the tone right there,” said Choate speaking of the Lincoln game. “We set the goal going into districts that it was to win them, and win them big. I think the Dr. Phillips game was probably the most frustrating game I’ve been a part of, but I was proud of the way the kids fought,” said Choate. The Hurricanes will host Countryside in their spring football game on the 27th of May, and then gear up for the one we’ll all be talking about during the summer when they host Armwood in the preseason classic on August 19th.