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ORLANDO — With 6:19 left in the fourth quarter of his third state championship game Friday night, Plant High quarterback Phillip Ely fell to the ground on all fours, staring helplessly at the field.
The senior quarterback had just thrown his second interception in as many drives, and his hopes of winning a third straight state championship were gone. But it wasn’t just the 29-7 loss to nationally-ranked Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas in the Class 5A state championship game that haunted Ely.
“I just don’t want to be forgotten,” Ely said after the game, the tears clearly visible behind his face mask. “I thought I’d go out with a bang. This isn’t the way I wanted to go.
“I just didn’t want to blow it for my team. They’ve done so much. I didn’t want to be the guy who blows it.”
Despite Ely’s emotion, there was little he could have done to save the Panthers (12-3) against the bigger, stronger, more athletic Raiders (15-0), who dominated them in every phase of the game.
“That’s about as good of a team as we’ve seen in our seven years,” Plant coach Robert Weiner said.
Plant gave up big plays on defense and couldn’t finish drives on offense. Aquinas didn’t let Florida State commit James Wilder Jr. break off any big runs — his longest of the night was 13 yards — and the Raiders made him earn every yard. Wilder, who finished with 72 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries, said after the game he fractured a rib.
“It was going to have to end some time. I’m sad it had to end like this,” Wilder said. “I wanted it to end with a big bang, but only one winner can come out. Either we were going to be devastated or they were going to be devastated.”
The Panthers didn’t find much success in the passing game, either. Ely, who missed most of the last two weeks of practice with a back injury, finished 13 of 35 for 166 yards. Despite not getting back onto the practice field until Wednesday, he said the back injury was not a factor in his performance.
“We just didn’t play to our fullest potential,” Ely said. “We had it. We just didn’t execute the way we wanted to.”
Aquinas took a 6-0 lead in the first quarter on two Nolan Bieck field goals, but the Panthers finally found their offense in the second quarter.
Ely connected with receiver Austin Aikens on two deep passes, and Wilder took over from there, rambling into the end zone on the next play to give the Panthers the lead with 7:33 left in the first half.
That lead didn’t last long, however, as Aquinas scored 14 unanswered points before halftime. Quarterback Jacob Rudock found a diving Rashad Greene in the front of the end zone for a touchdown with 1:23 left, and Plant unintentionally aided the Raiders’ next score with what Weiner termed a “stupid call.”
Down 13-7 with 34 seconds until halftime, Weiner called a timeout in an attempt to get the ball back. On the next play, Fred Coppet blazed past the Plant defense for a 93-yard touchdown run, putting the Panthers in a 20-7 hole.
The Panthers then sputtered through a scoreless second half, and the Raiders put the finishing touches on a dominant all-around display with a 37-yard field goal and a 74-yard touchdown pass from Rudock to Greene.
“When you play against great teams like that, the small things are so important, and all of a sudden it explodes into a big thing,” Weiner said. “They’ve got great players, so if you give them one little seam, they’re going to take it a long way.
“You’ve got to take care of the little things, and you’ve got to finish. Those are the two things we really didn’t do tonight. But I couldn’t be more proud of this group. …No such thing as moral victories, but I’m proud of my guys and always will be.”