LITHIA — All season, Plant has preached the often cliche message of getting better each week. As a chance to defend their state title draws nearer, the Panthers are doing more than just talking the talk.
Plant continued to step up its game Friday night in the region semifinal round of the Class 5A playoffs, rolling over Newsome 50-23 to earn a region final berth against Countryside.
The Panthers (10-2) scored more than 40 points only once in the first eight weeks of the season (56 against winless Riverview), but they have done so four consecutive games . Behind senior quarterback Phillip Ely’s six touchdowns (five passing, one rushing), Plant posted its second-highest score of the year .
“That’s just it: We get better as the season goes along,” said Ely, an Alabama commit. “We’re 12 weeks better now, and it really shows.”
Knowing the Wolves (8-4) would likely try to control the clock to keep the Panthers off the board, Plant came out firing. Ely threw four of his five touchdowns in the first half to get his team out to a 36-17 halftime lead. Panthers coach Robert Weiner said his team didn’t run many unsuccessful plays in the opening 24 minutes, something he attributed to Ely’s command of the offense.
“He’s really played lights-out,” Weiner said. “Tonight, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him play better in his three-year starting career.”
Ely spread the ball around to five receivers, all of whom had two or more receptions. Austin Aikens grabbed five receptions for 96 yards and a 62-yard touchdown , while Antonio Crawford thrived as a deep threat against a suspect Newsome secondary, coming down with four receptions for 93 yards and a touchdown.
The Panthers also ran for 200 yards and two touchdowns, including a 14-yard score by Calvin Mann in the first quarter and Ely’s 1-yard dive in the third.
“We weren’t afraid to pass it or run it,” Ely said. “We just knew that a lot of those plays were suitable for their defense, so we just kind of went out and did our thing and executed really well.”
Things turned from bad to worse for the Wolves halfway through the third quarter when star fullback Conner Powers, Tampa Bay’s leading rusher this season, went down hard and remained on the ground for more than 10 minutes.
Powers, whose season ended prematurely last season because of a torn ACL, left on a stretcher and was taken to Brandon Regional Hospital in an ambulance with a right knee injury.