TAMPA — It was second down, 23 yards to go. Undefeated Sickles was leading Plant by four, and the Panthers were running out of time.
With less than three minutes on the clock, quarterback Colby Brown threw downfield.
The ball was headed straight for the outstretched arms of Sickles defensive back Joey Breheny. Players on the Plant bench let out an exasperated sigh, thinking the game was over. Alexander “Buddha” Jackson said not so fast.
The defensive back made contact with the ball first, but Jackson ripped it from his hands to make the 29-yard reception. Five plays later, the Panthers were in the end zone for a winning touchdown, beating Sickles 24-20.
Brown admits he was nervous when the ball first left his hands.
“But then I was like, ‘We have Buddha on our team,’ ” he added, “and he’s the toughest kid that will probably ever play high school football.”
The high-powered matchup was eventful from the start, as Sickles star Ray Ray McCloud III had touchdowns in the first half on 15- and 11-yard runs. Plant, which ended the half with 12 yards rushing, struggled but big breaks on special teams kept the Panthers in the game.
After McCloud’s first touchdown run, Bernard Rogers took the kickoff 85 yards for a touchdown. In the second quarter, McCloud fumbled on a punt return, and Brown connected with Austin Hudson on the next play for a 38-yard touchdown.
The teams went into the locker room tied at 17, but Plant coach Robert Weiner knew his team wouldn’t win unless something changed defensively.
McCloud amassed 98 yards rushing in the first half, one fewer yard than the Plant offense.
“We’ve played a lot of great players in 10 years, and he’s about as good as anyone we’ve ever played,” Weiner said.
Plant (5-1-1) came out after the break making big mistakes on offense — each of the Panthers first two drives ended with a turnover.
Defensively, however, Plant played lights-out. McCloud was held to 36 yards rushing in the second half.
Still, Sickles (5-1) got far enough in the fourth quarter to put its kicker in field-goal range, and with 7:13 to go Daniel Lezotte kicked a 40-yarder to give the Gryphons a late lead.
For seven weeks the Panthers had practiced a quirky play, just in case there was a time it would be needed. With 3:09 remaining and Plant needing a winning scoring drive, Weiner decided it was that time.
On first and 10 at the 22-yard line, Jackson caught a screen from Brown then hurled it 30 yards to Hudson for the catch.
With 27 seconds left on the clock, Patrick Brooks capped the drive with a 5-yard run.
Moments after handing Sickles its first loss of the season, Weiner couldn’t help but beam thinking about the way his Panthers stepped up in the waning minutes. His team gave him some scares late, but Weiner insists he never lost hope.
“I’m a guy who never thinks it’s over,” he said. “One thing we always say is, we’re going to give our playmakers a chance to make plays. There were real man plays that were made at the end.”