TAMPA — At first glance, the two schools seemingly have little in common.
One has been an institution in Tampa since before the Great Depression. The other was founded in 2003, when its current senior class was approaching middle school. Since then, the former has won three football state championships.
Plant is known for its recent success on the gridiron, a bevy of Division I-A prospects and South Tampa swagger. Newsome is an up-and-comer out in Lithia — far from the shadow of downtown Tampa — with its best player still looking for a major scholarship offer.
“Despite the fact that there’s a lot of differences in the superficial things, the most important thing for the kids is wanting to be good and be a part of something successful,” Plant coach Robert Weiner said.
With that mind-set, the Plant and Newsome athletic programs have given the schools at least one thing in common. They have become dominant all around, with virtually every team in every sport guaranteed to be among the area’s best.
And Friday, the Panthers (9-2) and Wolves (8-3) will have common goals as they square off in Lithia: a playoff victory and berth in the region finals to take on the winner of Tampa Bay Tech-Countryside.
“Kids are kids, whether they’re from South Tampa or out in Lithia,” Weiner said. “They have an expectation of excellence, and I think the same is true at both schools.”
This will be Plant and Newsome’s first meeting on the gridiron and, even more indicative of the gap between the two, Weiner’s first trip to Newsome’s campus.
But Newsome athletic director Paul Lindstrom said his program’s athletic success is due largely to an important characteristic shared with Plant: strong support from the families and community.
“Some of the groundwork is there when you get the family support, you get good kids who are good in school and well-behaved and disciplined,” Lindstrom said. “That carries over into athletic accomplishments.”
On the field, even their opposing offensive styles would seem indicative of their differences. The Panthers rely on two high-profile recruits — running back James Wilder Jr. (FSU) and quarterback Phillip Ely (Alabama) — to stretch the field vertically and horizontally in their spread scheme.
The Wolves lean on the bruising running style of fullback Conner Powers, Tampa Bay’s leading rusher in yards (1,718) and touchdowns (27), in a run-heavy offense that some might mistakenly view as simplistic because of Powers’ tendency to bowl over would-be tacklers.
In reality, Weiner said, Newsome coach Ken Hiscock employs the most complicated offensive scheme Plant’s coaching staff has seen all season due to the Wolves’ ability to attack every gap and rush around the outside.
Whether that dominant rushing attack holds up Friday remains to be seen. Plant is certainly no stranger to the bright lights and high pressure of postseason football. But the second-round contest is arguably the biggest game in program history for the Wolves, who have made the postseason just twice before, losing in the first round both times.
“This is uncharted territory for us,” Lindstrom said. “This is practically a habit for (Plant). They’re used to it by now.”
Weiner acknowledged that the Panthers’ experience and higher expectations could play to their advantage. And the defending Class 5A state champion has made it no secret that it wants to win its fourth title in five years.
“Having been there before, that’s our goal. That’s what we’re shooting for,” Weiner said. “We’d be disappointed if it’s anything less.”
But he didn’t expect the Wolves’ relative lack of postseason inexperience to work against them. Plant and Newsome have one more thing in common: Neither will enter this game simply happy to have made it this far.
“I don’t know if that’s their makeup,” Weiner said. “To be honest, just upon watching them, that’s not their mind-set.”