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ORLANDO — Sometimes, one team is better than the other and makes the big plays and wins the game.
It happened Friday night.
Nothing more to really explain, says James Wilder Jr.
“We did all we could do,” said the guy dubbed Wilder Beast, though he spent most of the night caged up by Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas.
“The score just came out to be what it came out to be.”
It was 29-7.
The Panthers sideline?
Sad, sad, sad.
St. Thomas Aquinas completed a perfect season in capturing the Class 5A state championship Friday night at the Citrus Bowl, and soon, it will be crowned mythical national champions.
Not a bad team to lose to.
In fact, it was a great team.
The Raiders were bigger, faster and stronger, loaded with Division I-A players and now, six championships.
They were explosive. Running back Fred Coppet had 173 yards on just 10 carries, wide receiver Rashad Greene averaged almost 25 yards a catch, quarterback Jacob Rudock averaged more than 20 yards a pass completion.
“Too many big plays,” said defensive coordinator John Few. “What did we give up, five or six plays of 30 yards or more? You can’t do that.”
The Panthers defense, rebuilt into one of Tampa Bay’s finest units practically from scratch, uncharacteristically gave up exactly six plays of 30 yards or more.
Five of those came in the first half.
Two came in the crucial final 91 seconds of the first half, turning a 7-6 Plant lead into a 20-7 deficit the Panthers never recovered from.
Even the magic coaching touch that had vaulted the Panthers past four other playoff opponents, including then-undefeated Countryside and then-undefeated Lakeland, was missing.
Trailing 13-7, Plant had Aquinas pinned inside the 10 with 40 seconds remaining in the first half, so coach Robert Weiner was going to use his timeouts to try and get the ball back.
After the first timeout, Coppet beat the Panthers defense around the corner and sprinted 93 yards for a touchdown.
It was one of the few bad calls for a coaching staff that has been nearly perfect in an unprecedented five-year run that now includes three state titles and one runnerup finish.
Only because of Plant’s penchant for late-season improvement, Wilder’s penchant for making game-altering plays, and a coaching staff that is second to none’s penchant for making magic happen in big games was there even reason to consider the Panthers had a shot against the more highly regarded Raiders.
But the Panthers made them earn it. At times, they drove the ball. Trailing by two scores, 23-7, early in the fourth quarter, they drove to the Aquinas 7.
But an interception led to a 73-yard touchdown pass a few plays later — a missed tackle and again, a Raiders player just zipping by the slower Plant defenders.
It was symbolic of the whole game, the Panthers clawing and clawing, only to fall a little short.
“We worked so hard to get the ball 60 to 70 yards downfield, then not to score,” Weiner said. “You make 10 great plays, but you have to keep going and make 12, 13 great plays and finish drives.”
There was no magic on this night for Plant.
No Robert Marve throwing touchdown passes (though he was on the sideline), no Phillip Ely driving the Panthers up and down the field (though he was on the field), no Wilder bouncing off tacklers and blowing up YouTube (though we all kept waiting for it …and waiting …and waiting).
On this night, Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas made those plays.
Lots of them.
“I wanted it to end with a big bang,” Wilder said, sadly.
The score just came out to be what it came out to be.