CLEARWATER — Plant and Countryside were at the mercy of the weather.
Periodic downpours turned Cougar Stadium into a patch of green and brown slop that made traction tough.
With the passing game useless, both teams let the running backs and offensive lines handle the load whenever possible.
That was supposed to give the advantage to the Cougars, who have a massive offensive line that pushed around defenders all season.
But the Panthers showed off an effective ground game and their defense capitalized on turnovers in a 24-9 victory in Friday's Class 5A region final.
Plant (10-1) moves on to play at Lakeland (13-0) in the state semifinals next week.
"The weather was tough," Panthers coach Robert Weiner said. "But we were able to battle through it."
Throughout the game, the conditions made every movement of the ball, from the center-quarterback exchange to a downfield pass, an adventure.
Each team fumbled on its opening possession. There were eight fumbles in all, including six (four lost) by Countryside.
After recovering its fumble, Plant showed its quick-strike capability, scoring on a 50-yard run by T.J. Glover to go up 7-0.
The Cougars, meanwhile, lost a fumble on their first play from scrimmage. But Countryside's defense held, and a Plant field goal sailed wide.
Despite a slow start, the Cougars kept their composure. Their motto: Don't worry, be methodical. Countryside (11-2) stuck to a simple game plan. That meant a heavy dose of running back Alton Taylor and running the occasional quarterback keeper by Jimbo Chmelik. There were no big gambles, no big mistakes. But there were, eventually, big results.
With Taylor grinding out the tough yards, the Cougars moved into position for a 43-yard field goal by William Griswold to make it 7-3 in the first quarter.
In the second quarter, Plant countered with a 35-yard field goal by Chris Finn. Then Taylor capped a late drive with a 10-yard run. The extra point failed.
Trailing 10-9 to start the third quarter, Countryside continued to use its meat-grinder attack to move down the field. It missed a field goal that would have given it its first lead. Still, Countryside's defense held. Then its special teams partially blocked a punt to keep momentum.
Then the Cougars lost it with a game-changing fumble that Plant pounced on. Three players later, the Panthers scored on a 1-yard sneak by quarterback Phillip Ely.
Holding a 16-9 lead, Plant turned to its bruiser, James Wilder, to gain the tough yards down the stretch. Wilder, often carrying defenders on his back, ran through a tired defense late, rounding out the scoring with a 1-yard plunge and two-point conversion run. He finished with 96 yards on 13 carries.
"We just couldn't seem to get the break that we needed," Countryside coach John Davis said. "We had four turnovers, and we were still right there. If we had a break, we may have been able to get over the hump and win."
Bob Putnam can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4169.
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