TAMPA — For most of the game, Plant High Jr. running back James Wilder was swimming alone against the tide, hoping against hope one of his teammates would at least wave a life preserver at him.
Wilder was the focal point of the Panthers offense in Friday’s Class 5A region final, especially after quarterback Phillip Ely left in the first quarter because of back spasms.
Countryside knew it and zeroed in on Wilder, sending waves of defenders at him.
But when it mattered most, when his team was down and needed a score, Wilder came through. He scored two second-half touchdowns and finished with 163 yards rushing to lift the Panthers to a 21-13 victory.
Plant (11-2) will host Lakeland in next week’s state semifinals.
“Countryside was keying on me, and coach (Bob Weiner) wanted to use me more as a decoy,” said Wilder, who has orally committed to Florida State.
“But I wanted to help the team out. I just told them to give me the rock.”
Wilder started strong on the game’s first possession, gaining 53 yards on five carries and scoring on a 2-yard run to give the Panthers a 7-0 lead.
The Cougars (12-1) fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and Plant recovered. But Countryside’s defense tightened up and forced the Panthers to settle for a field goal they missed.
The rest of the first half was a stalemate as neither team managed much offense. Countryside had minus-6 yards in the first quarter and just 6 yards after its first three possessions.
Plant couldn’t do anything either.
With Ely out of the game, the Cougars paid more attention to Wilder, holding him to 9 yards for the remainder of the first half. Midway through the second quarter, the Cougars offense came to life behind the running of Terry Johnson, who had 55 yards on six carries on a drive that ended with him scoring on a 1-yard run that tied the score.
Then the Cougars stuffed Wilder on fourth down on the Panthers’ next possession.
With less than two minutes remaining in the first half, Countryside quarterback Gray Crow hit Marrieo Taylor on a 42-yard completion, setting up a 1-yard touchdown run by Johnson with 47 seconds remaining. Ryan Halter’s extra point, though, was blocked by Wilder.
In the second half, the Cougars stayed conservative, hoping to use its run game to control the clock and hold the lead.
Countryside had two first downs on its opening possession of the half but did not get another until the final three minutes of the game.
The Panthers offense was running on a treadmill, too.
Then Wilder came to life.
With his team trailing 13-7 in the fourth quarter, Wilder ran off the right side on four carries for 56 yards, including an 8-yarder that proved to be the winning touchdown.
Wilder sealed the game on the next possession when he ran left, stiff-armed one tackler and tip-toed down the sideline for a 43-yard score.
“We knew Wilder was going to get the ball,” Countryside coach Jared Davis said. “That’s what Plant does when their back is against the wall. I would, too. He’s a great player. We just had too many missed tackles, and that cost us.”