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5A football: Plant 20, Lakeland 0

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LAKELAND — From Jumbo­trons to jammed bleachers to Jimbo Fisher on the sideline, Bryant Stadium lived up to its mythical billing Friday night.

Lakeland High, its primary tenant, did not. The legendary program was trumped by legend in the making.

Completely unfazed by the raucous atmosphere in which they stepped, the Plant Panthers (12-1) moved within a game of their third state title in four years, and one step closer to becoming the type of storied program about which they publish books and produce documentaries.

On a cold, windy night on North Florida Avenue, the Panthers outperformed, outhustled and outmaneuvered the Dreadnaughts, rolling to a 20-0 romp that marked Lakeland's first home playoff shutout loss. Ever.

So much for that Bryant Stadium aura that has wobbled the collective knees of lesser foes.

"Everyone made it sound like a big deal," said linebacker Mike Mirabella, co-ringleader of a defensive effort that kept Lakeland outside Plant's 20-yard line all night. "It's just another stadium with a Jumbotron."

The numbers they'll never dare flash on that big screen: Lakeland, which entered averaging 39 points and 246.2 rushing yards, finished with 104 on the ground and 134 total yards. At halftime, the Dreadnaughts (13-1) had 37 yards and two first downs.

"They were so excited about this challenge," said coach Robert Weiner, whose Panthers face Bradenton Manatee, a winner over nationally top-ranked Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas, in next week's Class 5A final at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.

"And I think a lot of people probably come in here and tip-toe their way into this saying, 'Let's hope and see what we can do.' Our kids never felt that way from the get-go. They said, 'Let's go play Plant football.' "

They did it at the very outset, using a series of runs and short passes to march 78 yards in 14 plays, capped by two-way workhorse James Wilder Jr.'s 15-yard touchdown run that will instantly became part of South Tampa lore.

Wilder (20 carries, 92 yards) carried what appeared to be a half-dozen Lakeland defenders into the end zone.

"Can they put more than 11 guys on the field?" Weiner asked with a laugh. "It looked like it was more than 11 he was carrying."

Lakeland's initial first down didn't arrive until 5:20 remained before halftime. By then, Plant had taken a 10-0 lead on Chris Finn's 48-yard field goal. Finn added a 24-yarder on the final play of the first half to give Plant a 13-0 lead at intermission.

Lakeland's only legitimate offensive threats occurred on consecutive second-half drives. The first ended on fourth and 10 at the Plant 31 when quarterback Scooter Haggins was stopped by Wilder for a 6-yard gain.

After a Plant three-and-out, Lakeland moved to Plant's 27 in seven plays before Haggins was intercepted by safety Eric Dungy with 8:30 to play. Six plays later, Allen Sampson sealed things with a 53-yard touchdown run. Haggins finished 5-for-14 for 30 yards.

"We knew he was a very athletic quarterback," Wilder said. "We knew if we could keep him in the pocket and try to get him frustrated at the beginning of the game, we knew we could shut him out."

But to shut all the Dreadnaughts out?

"To not give up a play and put a zero on the board? Weiner said. "Unbelievable."

5A football: Plant 20, Lakeland 0 12/11/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 12, 2009 12:01am]
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