TAMPA — Say what you will about the affluence of Plant High and its perennially talent-rich football team, just don't rush to monetary misconceptions.
Coach Robert Weiner, whose team competes in its third out-of-state contest in four seasons tonight, says those high-profile trips are not the result of a wealthy booster's benevolence or a school district doting on South Tampa.
To the contrary, the game's sponsor (like a network or apparel company) foots the bill.
"We don't ever travel at the expense of the school, or the expense of the kids, or even through fundraising," Weiner, battling a lingering cold, said in a deep, scratchy octave.
"We only travel through games that are paid for us. Sometimes people question travel and things like that. We've never used a penny of school money. We've never fundraised a penny for any of that."
But that's not to say this latest trip won't exact a potentially pricey toll.
Four days after a sobering 35-16 defeat to Tallahassee Godby on statewide TV, the Panthers were preparing to board charter buses late Wednesday afternoon. A six-hour ride to central Georgia loomed for a Thursday night nontelevised game against Sandy Creek High.
The Patriots, ranked fifth nationally by MaxPreps, haven't played yet. By contrast, the Panthers are humbled and hurt. Weiner's top ballcarriers, junior Patrick Brooks (hip) and sophomore Tyke Keaton-Baldwin (concussion), aren't expected to play.
Toss in a suspension (Division I cornerback prospect Derrick Baity) and short practice week, and the planets seem more askew than aligned for the Panthers as they head north.
"Is it ideal? It's certainly not ideal to do it, but as football players we've got to constantly adjust to all different kinds of variables that are not always in our control," Weiner said.
"We ask our kids to do that. I felt good about the fact that (the Godby and Sandy Creek games) were at the beginning of the year. If they were in the middle of year …"
The contest is one of a nationwide collection of prominent matchups packaged as the Brothers in Arms Classic. Sponsored in part by Under Armour, it's staged in honor of Lt. Brendan Looney, a Navy SEAL who died in 2010 while serving in Operation Enduring Freedom.
Though excited at the chance to compete in the series, Weiner wasn't crazy about the timing and even asked for a change in date.
When it wasn't granted — Plant is in the nightcap of a Thursday doubleheader at Sandy Creek — he assessed all the variables and logistics and agreed to participate anyway.
"We prepared for Godby and Sandy Creek, at least film-wise as coaches, over the summer," Weiner said. "So it's not like we only had one day to put together this game plan. We had already put together this game plan before, and now it's just a matter of implementing it."
Georgia's reigning Class 4A state champion, Sandy Creek returns its quarterback, top receiver and two 1,000-yard rushers from a 15-0 team.
The receiver, senior Clemson commit Demarre Kitt, is ranked the nation's 104th top recruit by ESPN. Six-foot senior Cole Garvin, a 2,500-yard passer last season, has committed to Marshall. Defensively, Weiner said the Patriots conjure images of Armwood, circa 2011.
"But whereas Armwood probably a couple of years ago had 11 Division I guys, they don't necessarily have those guys, but they have 11 guys that play incredibly hard," Weiner said. "They play the way you'd like to coach your kids to play."
Yet Weiner says he wouldn't have scheduled the game if he didn't think his team could prevail. He reiterated as much on the meticulously detailed itinerary issued to his players this week.
On the Thursday schedule, between pregame warmups (6:30-7:30 p.m.) and shower/clean-up/postgame meal (10-11 p.m.) is this item:
7:30-10:00 BEAT SANDY CREEK PATRIOTS
"We're going to go up and play a game and we're going to win it if we're better than they are, and they're going to win it if they're better than we are," Weiner said. "And there's no other excuse as to why that happens."