TAMPA — With Plant quarterback Phillip Ely sidelined due to a back injury, Lakeland knew it could expect a healthy dose of James Wilder Jr. in Friday night’s highly anticipated Class 5A state semifinal rematch.
But the Dreadnaughts, much to their disappointment, saw more of Plant’s two-way star than they could have possibly imagined. Wilder rushed for 121 yards and three touchdowns, and added a blocked extra point and a fumble recovery — and that was just in the first half.
“(Wilder) never stops amazing us,” coach Robert Weiner said. “That’s the kind of player he is.”
Wilder finished with 215 yards rushing and five touchdowns on 21 carries, along with a number of other memorable plays on both sides of the ball as the Panthers crushed the Dreadnaughts 48-6 at Dads Stadium. Plant advances to the Class 5A championship game in Orlando, facing Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas for a chance to win their third straight title.
Plant (12-2) never trailed and never appeared to be challenged Friday. The Panthers beat the Dreadnaughts 20-0 last year in Lakeland on the strength of their defense and Wilder, and the same formula worked to perfection this time around.
“I don’t even know what to say. One of the greatest performances of any team I’ve ever been around,” Weiner said. “I couldn’t be more proud of those guys.”
Eric Patterson returned the opening kickoff 87 yards for a touchdown, and Wilder scored his first touchdown from 3 yards out to give Plant an early 14-0 lead. The Dreadnaughts (13-1) bounced back as running back Steward Butler scored from 18 yards out, but
Wilder blocked the ensuing point after to make it 14-6.
The Panthers then scored 20 unanswered before halftime on two Grant Van Aman field goals and two of Wilder’s touchdown runs.
His performance was so impressive that by the end of the night, Wilder, who spoke earlier in the week about his “hatred” for Lakeland, was signing autographs for Lakeland fans and cheerleaders.
“It’s no secret this is one of my most pumped-up games, against Lakeland,” Wilder said. “I love to play those boys. I circled this game, and I circled the state championship.”
After shutting out Lakeland last year on the road, Plant’s defense easily contained a Dreadnaughts offense that entered the game averaging 42.5 points per game. Plant’s defense allowed only 192 total yards.
For a Panthers squad that suffered a series of early-season setbacks, including two nationally televised losses and a shutout at the hands of Armwood, the running-clock victory — and return to state champion-caliber play — was a testament to how far Plant has come this season.
Weiner has often spoke about how much the Panthers needed to form an identity, and Wilder believed his team did so Friday night.
“I think we formed a champion’s identity,” Wilder said.