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Braden River carries Manatee flag football banner into playoffs after one-loss season

When losing eight senior starters to graduation, usually a rebuild is in order.

But not for the Braden River High School flag football team.

The Pirates ran roughshod during the regular season en route to a 14-1 record to secure a district championship and the No. 1 seed for the regional playoffs.

Braden River plays host to Estero at 6 p.m. in Wednesday’s Class 1A regional quarterfinal.

“We knew we had the younger kids that were pretty good leaders,” Braden River head coach Amanda Porco said. “We knew we had two very strong seniors, to be seniors, and now they’re seniors coming back between (Cydnee Brooks) and (Ameria Smith). And I think that really helped steer the ship for us this year.”

The Pirates advanced to the regional final in 2023, but perennial national power Tampa Robinson stopped them.

This year, Robinson is on the opposite side of the bracket in Region 2. That means Braden River, which is in Region 3, would not meet seven-time reigning state champion Robinson until the state championship.

However, there is a long road in the single-elimination playoffs before that point.

Braden River flag football heads to playoffs

Cydnee Brooks is the team’s quarterback. She’s completed 68% of her passes for 2,873 yards with 49 touchdowns against nine interceptions this season.

Brooks has also scored 11 rushing touchdowns and tallied 626 rushing yards.

Target-wise, the ball is spread to five receivers with 29 or more receptions. Amerie Smith has a team-leading 830 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. Smith has 66 catches this season.

Aubrey Barak (67 receptions, 717 yards, eight TDs), Aryanna Spainhower (54 catches, 646 yards, 10 TDs), Natalie Davis (46 catches, 299 yards, three TDs) and Ava Tamburin (29 catches, 226 yards, seven TDs) are the other pass-catching weapons for the Pirates.

Defensively, Maddie Baehr and Barak lead the team with 57 tackles. Madison Epperson also has more than 50 tackles, finishing the regular season with 52.

Girls aim for state championship

Porco has relied on word of mouth to help build the county’s lone public school playoff team this year.

“We have a lot of kids who play other sports and they come into flag having never played before,” Porco said. “And then they enjoy it so much that they go and tell their teammates on the other sports, and it just spreads like wildfire.”

From soccer to volleyball players and weightlifters — and basketball players in the past — Porco has a bevy of multisport athletes on her roster.

And now they’re carrying the Manatee County flag into the playoffs as the lone team qualified.

“We have great pride for building this sport for Manatee,” Porco said. “We’re very far behind other counties that have been playing for longer and that’s no fault of ours, but we just haven’t had the years of flag football the way other counties have. Not that we are trying to play catch up, but we’re definitely trying to make sure that our girls are seeing as many opportunities as they all are.”