TAMPA – Mention the Lakeland Dreadnaughts to Plant RB/DE James Wilder Jr. and watch his eyes light up.
In the undefeated Dreadnaughts, the defending Class 5A champion Panthers (11-2) face their toughest roadblock this postseason tonight at Dad’s Stadium. And there’s no love lost for Wilder, who knows Lakeland (13-0) better than anyone else on the Plant roster. Any reference to the Dreadnaughts raises an ire in Wilder that seems unparalleled.
“In this game, besides kickoffs, I plan on being on the field the whole game,” Wilder said earlier this week. “I don’t know why, but I just have beef with this team. I have so much hatred for this team. I’m going to be on the field the whole time this game. They’re going to have to prepare for me on offense and defense. They’re gonna have to be ready.”
Two seasons ago, when Wilder was a sophomore at Chamberlain, Lakeland handed Wilder his first varsity loss in the 5A region final, 40-20. In last year’s return trip to Bryant Stadium, Wilder – a FSU commit who is one of the nation’s top recruits – earned revenge by leading the Panthers to a 20-0 win, a trademark victory that put both Wilder and Plant on the national scene. Wilder’s Dreadnaught-dragging touchdown run in the game’s opening drive has nearly 27,000 hits on YouTube.
And still, there’s no one Wilder looks forward to playing more than Lakeland.
“They gave me my first varsity loss ever,” Wilder said. “I didn’t know how to react. I was a sophomore. The fans were calling me a crybaby. That just put something in my head. I cried after the loss. I just could not wait to play Lakeland last year. You could just tell by that first drive that nothing was stopping me. It’s gonna be like that again.
“(The players) didn’t do anything wrong,” Wilder added with a smile. “That team just messed up by beating me my sophomore year.”
And now as a senior, Wilder – who has rushed for 1,290 yards (107.5 a game) and 16 touchdowns along with 66 tackles and 8 sacks on defense -- meets Lakeland for one last time, this time at home.
“We had to go play them both times,” Wilder said. “This is the perfect opportunity to play them on our home field for the first time. It would be nice to get a win over them in my senior year and then go to states and end it with a ring. That would be the perfect story right there. I definitely want to make that happen and make it true.”
-- EDUARDO A. ENCINA (email@example.com; Twitter: @EddieHometeam)