TAMPA — It is difficult to call a defending state champion — and a program playing for its third state title in four years — an underdog. And it’s even harder to hang that title on a quarterback who could end the season tonight with a 19-0 record as a varsity starter.
But that’s the way Plant High junior quarterback Phillip Ely likes it. He will lead the Panthers into tonight’s Class 5A state championship game at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando against a storied Bradenton Manatee program.
“We love being the underdog,” Ely said. “That’s where we want to be. We don’t want to be the target at the top. We want to come from underneath and play our hardest to get to the top.”
Plant’s past two state titles were won by All-America quarterbacks, Aaron Murray last year and Robert Marve in 2006. But it was Ely who stepped in for an injured Murray last year as a sophomore, won over his teammates and rallied the team to seven wins, including three in the playoffs, until Murray returned.
And this season almost never happened for Ely.
He played throughout the summer’s 7-on-7 season with an ailing back, an injury that flared up late in the preseason. Coaches thought it was just a muscle strain that would heal.
But a doctor wanted to put Ely in a back brace for three months, which would cost him the entire season. He’d have to limit time on his feet, so he wouldn’t be able to go to practice nearly as often.
“I would have to be home staying still in this cast, a huge body cast,” Ely said. “It put me on my back, literally.”
He sought other opinions, until finding a doctor who said Ely would be able two play with two weeks of intense physical therapy to strengthen his back.
“Phillip’s poured his whole world into this team and to be taken out of an opportunity to do what he’s worked so hard to do, it was really potentially devastating for him,” Plant coach Robert Weiner said. “We went to the doctor once prepared to hear the worst and we found out he could come back and play.”
Putting on a Plant uniform means something special to Ely. His father and four uncles played football at the school, as did his grandfather. His mother is the cheerleading coach, and three maternal uncles also played at Plant. His 80-year-old grandmother, Dorothy, is one of the dozen family members who watches Ely play every week.
So Ely was willing to do anything to ensure he played, even if it meant a lot of sore Saturday mornings.
Ely’s return might have been the victory of the year for Plant (12-1), which rotated three quarterbacks in his absence for the first few games. The Panthers struggled at times, losing their preseason classic to Manatee and season opener to Tampa Bay Tech.
“They weren’t the same team when he was hurt,” said Alonso coach Mike Heldt, whose team lost to Plant and Ely twice this season. “Don’t think he’s not as good as those other guys before him. He doesn’t make mistakes. He runs that offense well. They’ve got a lot of weapons on that team, and he is one of them.”
Ely put on about 20 pounds from last season, but is still a lean 5-foot-10, 175 pounds. His leadership, Weiner said, is boundless. This season, he has completed 58 percent of his passes, thrown for 1,737 yards and 19 touchdowns with just three interceptions. He is also a deceptive runner, averaging 6.5 yards per carry and scoring seven touchdowns on the ground.
“He’s so good at leadership and he’s so well-liked by his teammates that I think sometimes he doesn’t get his just due for his talent,” Weiner said. “He’s extremely talented. I think he gets his due just by winning.”
Last week’s state semifinal win at Lakeland was an example of Ely’s moxie. He lead Plant into Bryant Stadium and handed the Dreadnaughts their first home shutout playoff loss, all while throwing for just 86 yards.
“It was a game where we had to be physically dominating,” Weiner said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a game like that managed so well. Even the plays we made mistakes on as a team, he made them right. We had a guy go the wrong way once and Phillip made sure it didn’t turn into a disaster.”
Now Ely has a chance to nab his second state championship ring. Last season, he didn’t play in the final against Tallahassee Lincoln, giving way to Murray, but he received one of the loudest ovations from teammates and fans during the medal ceremony.
“He puts together the total package of everything and that creates a winner,” Weiner said. “There’s no mistake that under his guidance we haven’t lost a game and hopefully we can win one more this week.”
Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at email@example.com