Somebody forgot to tell Tampa Plant the state final had been set as far back as August. All season long Plant has worked toward that light at the end of the Class 5A tunnel.
But while some thought the light would be an oncoming train in the form of Lakeland or St. Thomas Aquinas, it turns out it may be the glow of a state championship. Make that, another state championship.
Last year’s Class 4A state champion, Plant has guided the minefield of the Class 5A state playoffs this season and will attempt to complete the journey with another state title against Bradenton Manatee. Plant soundly and convincingly beat Lakeland, 20-0, in Lakeland, no less, to advance to the title matchup at Orlando’s Citrus Bowl.
In dominating a game most observers felt it would lose, Plant held the vaunted Dreadnaughts offense to 134 yards and nine first downs. Lakeland came into the contest averaging more than 300 yards and almost 40 points per game.
Add in 92 rushing yards and a touchdown from Panther running back James Wilder, Jr., two Chris Finn field goals and a game-sealing 53-yard scamper for a score from Allen Sampson and Plant moves on for a shot at its third state crown in four seasons.
In Manatee, Plant will face a team that also pulled an upset to advance to the finals.
The Hurricanes defeated St. Thomas Aquinas, ranked as the top high school team in the nation, 28-20. Manatee has state titles in its trophy case as well, but none since the early 1990s when its program was considered a state powerhouse. In knocking off St. Thomas Aquinas, Manatee defeated a two-time defending state champion and a team that was riding a 37-game winning streak.
Ironically, Plant and Manatee faced off in August in a preseason game.
The outcome? A 49-33 Manatee win.
Tough sledding for Tampa Catholic, Armwood and Jefferson
Tampa Bay’s other teams vying for a state championship did not fare as well.
Tampa Catholic, playing in the Class 2B state championship game, lost 21-7 to Jacksonville Bolles. Meanwhile, Seffner Armwood and Tampa Jefferson saw their seasons end in the state semifinals.
Tampa Catholic (12-2) couldn’t muster enough offense early in the game, falling behind 7-0 by halftime. Bolles took control of the game with two quick second-half touchdowns to go up 21-0.
The Crusaders got on the board with six minutes left in the game when quarterback D.J. Williams hit receiver Brandon Mendoza on a 6-yard touchdown pass. It is the second time in the past three years Tampa Catholic has finished the season as state runners-up.
Meanwhile, in its Class 4A state semifinal game, Armwood found itself in a strange place against Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer – trailing. The Hawks (12-2) were stunned in the first half, behind 21-0. But Armwood managed a comeback with third quarter touchdowns by Vaughn Cross and Sherman Jessie. Now down just 21-15 heading into the fourth quarter, Armwood appeared poised to take control. But Dwyer outscored Armwood 20-0 in the fourth to post a 41-15 victory.
And in Class 3A, Jefferson’s seven-hour bus ride to Pensacola was met with a 20-0 loss. And a long ride back to Tampa. Jefferson (11-2) suffered six turnovers, had quarterback Quentin Williams sacked eight times and turned the ball over on downs twice. Still, the Dragons trailed just 7-0 heading into the fourth quarter.
But Pensacola turned two of those turnovers into touchdowns early in the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach.