TAMPA — A week after needing overtime to save its season, the Plant football team was determined to not need a prayer in Friday night’s Class 8A state semifinal against Neptune Beach Fletcher.
The Panthers needed a furious fourth-quarter comeback to beat East Lake last week, but seven days later, Plant was meticulous at piecing apart the Senators at Dad’s Stadium.
And Plant’s 26-7 win over Fletcher sealed its fourth straight trip to the state finals in Orlando. The Panthers still remember last year’s state championship loss to Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas at the Citrus Bowl.
“I will probably wear my silver medal every day next week just to remind me what happened last year and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” said senior two-way player Antonio Crawford.
Crawford made the biggest play of the night, a third-quarter interception that he returned 57 yards inside the Fletcher 1-yard line to set up Plant’s first touchdown of the night — a Mike Tate power plunge to make the score 19-0.
Before then, the Panthers couldn’t crack the end zone against a game Senators defense and were forced to settle for four Grant Van Aman field goals.
A week ago, Van Aman missed a 49-yard kick that would have beaten East Lake in regulation. But on Friday he was perfect, converting kicks of 42, 30, 45 and 47 yards.
“To come back and kick them from the long distances that he did, it says a lot about what that young man has inside of him,” Plant coach Robert Weiner said. “I couldn’t be more proud of what he’s done and couldn’t be happier going into state with him.”
Said Van Aman: “I knew that this game could come down to me. When I hit that 47-yarder, it was just a sigh of relief.”
Special teams play was a theme for the Panthers, who gave the Senators an average starting field position at their 19-yard line in their first nine possessions, including one drive at the 7 and another at the 1.
“Our special teams were spectacular tonight,” Weiner said. “We give them a goal sheet. And we want to win every special teams play and we feel the game breaker will come out of it eventually. We might have not had a game breaker, but we made every play.”
Plant running back Wesley Bullock (12 carries, 147 yards), who had his sixth straight 100-yard rushing game, scored Plant’s other touchdown in the fourth quarter on a 26-yard run.
The Plant defense held Fletcher scoreless for most of the night, allowing the Senators’ only touchdown with 4:41 to play. The Panthers also held 2,100-yard rusher Jamari Smith to 77 yards on 21 carries.