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When Robert Weiner went looking in the offseason for a big game for his Plant Panthers to play, he set his sights on the biggest target he could find.
Friday, Plant will play 24-time Louisiana state champ John Curtis Christian in the Superdome.
When Hillsborough coach Earl Garcia needed a game to fill the hole left by Plant, he ended up with a date playing a team with some national renown and recent ESPN appearances.
Friday, Hillsborough travels to Cocoa to take on the Tigers, winners of three state championships from 2008-10.
And when Armwood coach Sean Callahan had an open date to fill, he contemplated, for a second, something less daunting than last year’s nationally ranked Las Vegas opponent for his graduation-depleted team to play.
But with all these teams, in today’s world of high-impact high school football, less daunting doesn’t work anymore.
“We’ve created such a monster here that if I was to play another middle-of-the-road team, well, I just think our fans expect more,” Callahan said.
Friday, Armwood will host Delray Beach American Heritage, which boasts one of the best running backs in the country and has played in four of the past five state championship games in its classification, winning three, including last year’s Class 3A title.
High-profile football games are becoming a way of life in Hillsborough County, so this week is not a seminal moment, just another big one. After all, you are now talking about a county that had three teams play for state championships in 2010, and two actually win titles on the same day in 2011.
And there’s always this, the biggest game of them all: Plant-Armwood.
But teams are reaping the rewards of their success, and looking outward more and more: for tougher competition, more national exposure and golden opportunities afforded few others.
“Honestly … it’s all about making good experiences for our kids,” said Weiner, who was the first county coach permitted to take his team out of state when the Panthers played Abilene in 2010.
Before that, though, they had appeared on ESPN against the Hawks and Bradenton Manatee.
Plant was able to use its national reputation, and some coaching connections — assistant Cyril Brockmeier coached high school ball in New Orleans, as well as at Tulane — to secure Friday’s date in the second annual Allstate Sugar Bowl Prep Football Classic.
Weiner heard John Curtis was looking for a game and sent in his team’s resume.
“We wanted to do it pretty bad,” he said.
As unique as their previous spotlight games have been, nothing tops playing in the 70,000-seat Superdome, which has played host to some of sport’s most historic moments and some of New Orleans' most tragic ones.
Like Weiner, Callahan said he delights in giving his players opportunities never before imagined.
And bigger is better.
Last year’s trip to Las Vegas was a once-in-a-lifetime trip for the majority of the Armwood roster. This year, the coach settled for hosting a game against a state champion.
“We decided to tee it up and keep playing high-end teams,” Callahan said.
It just so happened Callahan’s son, UCF assistant Kirk, knew American Heritage was looking for a game. The teams set a date — Callahan insisted on a home game — and even squared off once already this summer at a UCF camp in June.
Not expected to be the powerhouse they were last season, Callahan says a win over American Heritage possibly “gets us back in the national picture.”
It’s all about timing when it comes to succeeding nationally.
Jefferson had the greatest team in its history in 2010, but in 2011 scheduled an ill-fated game against Ohio’s St. Edward.
The 2010 team was primed for such a game. Last year, thanks to heavy graduation, it was not.
The Dragons lost 52-13.
And had high school football experienced its current interest level in the mid 1990s, schools like Jesuit and Hillsborough might have been the first to break the television and travel barriers.
The Terriers get their chance this season. Garcia was hoping to flip Plant’s absence into a home game against a state power with notoriety. He got most of what he wanted, but he’ll need a few buses to get there.
“It’s a one-year deal. We signed the contract to go there,” Garcia said. “The promoter gave us $1,500 for the bus. The county will help us feed the kids on the way there. Our boosters … will help us feed them on the way back.
“We’ve already seen (Cocoa). If you’re going to be good you’ve got to play good people. That will be the best football team we see all year outside of Armwood.”
As the sport continues to grow and promoters see a buck to be made and television has airtime to fill, more and more teams will find their way onto ESPN or featured in marquee matchups.
Plant, Armwood and Hillsborough will bask in the county’s glory this week.
It’s enough to make you wonder: