TAMPA — Plant senior tight end Chase Mighell spends most of his time on the football field protecting quarterback James Few. Off the field, the teammates have an intense academic competition that will shape their future beyond the gridiron.
Mighell and Few own identical 6.12 weighted grade-point averages, tied for 19th in their 500-plus student class and best on the Panthers’ football team.
And they’re not alone.
The Panthers, playing in Saturday’s Class 8A final against Miramar — their fourth straight state championship berth and chance for a fourth state title since 2006 — boast nine players who are legitimate Ivy League-caliber student-athletes.
“I’ve never had a team like that,” coach Robert Weiner said. “I don’t think anybody in the world ever has.”
But just calling them Ivy League prospects would probably limit their promise. Over the summer, senior safety Drew Madhu committed to Stanford, where he plans to attend the nation’s No. 1-ranked business school. Offensive guard Nathan Shienle is a 6-foot-5, 290-pound Division I-A prospect who owns offers from Tulane, East Carolina and Eastern Michigan.
But for the other members of Plant’s brainy bunch — Few, Mighell, linebacker Mike Tate, defensive lineman Patrick Wright, receiver Daniel Casselli, kicker/punter Grant Van Aman and safety David Lerom — their dedication in the classroom has allowed football to become a vehicle to an Ivy League education.
Plant (13-1) has won the Hillsborough County Public Schools team GPA award five straight years.
In June, several players went on a six-day trip to Harvard, Yale, Brown and Dartmouth for campus tours and camps. They were accompanied by Weiner and co-defensive coordinator John Few, a Princeton grad.
“They were just unbelievable places,” said Mighell, who is considering Cornell, Dartmouth, Middlebury and Amherst. “You didn’t really expect those opportunities as a sophomore or junior, but it became a reality this summer.”
Said Casselli, a steady possession receiver who owns a 5.2 weighted GPA and 1330 SAT score: “I always played football because it was something that I liked to do. But then when you have academics and football and you have a good balance between the two, the combination shows it can get you places. Getting an education like that is something you don’t want to pass up.”
Plant’s formula to state title success has been dictated by the fact that the Panthers get better as the season goes along. This year was no different, with Plant starting out overmatched in a 35-7 preseason loss to Miami Columbus.
But the catalyst to the Panthers’ rise has been the players’ ability to constantly digest more information game by game. And John Few’s defensive playbook is a thick one.
“There are a lot of keys you have to read and a lot of responsibilities that everyone has for every formation,” said Tate, who has a 4.8 weighted GPA and is the team’s leading tackler with 199 stops. “Every week we go over a different formation and run different plays out of them. You just have to be able to absorb like a sponge and be able to come out and play on Friday.”
“I really think that with us being so academically inclined, it helps us in the film room,” Madhu added. “We’ll look for the little things — the little hints and clues to give us any slight advantage.”
On offense, James Few, who scored 1400 on his SAT, has blossomed at quarterback, throwing for 2,462 yards and 29 touchdowns — more than double his interceptions (13). He has a Cornell offer and interest from Harvard, Princeton and Penn.
“James is the perfect example,” said Van Aman said. “He doesn’t make many mistakes.”
Weiner points to another intangible — the leadership these seniors bring — as a defining characteristic that had led to football success.
“I think they’ve even had an impact on the rest of our team,” Weiner said. “We’ve had a lot of guys who were middle-of-the-road students who have become very good students and a lot of guys who were struggling who have found some success, guys who really didn’t give academics much of a thought. When you talk about leadership, that’s real leadership.”
Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at email@example.com
When/where: Saturday; Citrus Bowl, Orlando
Class 6A: Armwood vs. Miami Central, 1 p.m.
Class 8A: Plant vs. Miramar, 7 p.m.
Admission: $12 per session
On the Web: We’ll have live updates via Twitter (@LauraHomeTeam) and a scoreboard at tampabay.com/hometeam.