TAMPA — Plant senior center Jon Haney’s helmet bears more scratches than the black paw print stickers that decorate the helmets of some of his skill position teammates — the ones that are more often rewarded for touchdowns than pancake blocks.
But the team realizes that if Plant’s yearly formula — of getting better every week to put the Panthers in reach of a state title — is going to work, it will start in the trenches.
Plant overcame an early spell of injuries to its front five, which only returned two starters, and now is motoring its way to a fourth state title game in five years.
“From the beginning, whether it was spoken or unspoken, we knew we were going to go as far as they would take us,” coach Robert Weiner said of the O-line. “And at the beginning no one knew if that was going to be very far. We really didn’t have a lot of guys with a tremendous amount of experience.
“There came a point when they understood that everyone else on the field is playing football, but that they’re protecting their teammates and their brothers. They’re really now the sacrificial guys who make the whole thing go.”
Senior strongside guard Nathan Shienle, a Division-I recruit with an offer from Tulane, and Haney, who makes all the offensive line calls in the middle, were Plant’s only returning starters.
“We were pretty raw at first,” said senior weakside guard Joe Cannella, who has played far beyond his 5-foot-10, 240-pound frame.
But junior strongside tackle Richy Klepal, who filled in last year when former D-I prospect Tony Posada was injured, has developed into what Weiner calls “one of the best linemen in the state.” And that allowed the 6-foot-5, 295-pound mobile Shienle to move inside to guard, where he will likely play in college.
And weakside tackle Richard Bush, one of three sophomores who took his first snaps for an injury-depleted line in the preseason loss to Miami Columbus, is a game-film hound who has been dedicated to playing catchup with his older linemates. Another sophomore, Ray Raulerson, has also earned snaps there.
“We’ve come to just be used to each others movements,” Cannella said. “It’s like second nature now. Like with me and Jonathan Haney, when we’re doing a double team, we know how close out feet can be. We’re not stepping on each other’s feet. We just know now.”
They started jelling during the summer with “Fatboy Friday,” when the linemen all go to an amusement park — big men on roller coasters and inner tubes.
“The objective is to normally get kicked out of the park at the end of the day,” Shienle joked.
But this year’s unit, Weiner said, came together during the Panthers’ 12-7 win over Oradell (N.J.) Bergen Catholic at Manatee.
“That’s when our physical toughness was really tested,” Weiner said. “I think that game had a lot of ramifications for our team long term. I think that game let us know there’s a toughness to this team that we didn’t know we had prior to that.”
Over the course of the season, the line has paved the way for an average of 27.8 offensive points (60 touchdowns in 13 games) and 212.2 yards passing and 196.9 yards rushing.
“We know we’re going to be short with the paws on the helmet,” Haney said. “We know it’s not all about that. We know it’s about how well we work together. When we’re putting up points, we’ll pat ourselves on the back a little bit. We lift up the kids who make the plays, but we know it really can’t be done without us. It’s not about the paws.”