ORLANDO — The black No. 32 jersey he had slept in the night before was soaked with sweat. Now, James Wilder Jr. was soaking in the surreality.
Arriving at this feeling had been downright treacherous. Surreal had been preceded by a scare.
Wilder's team, which had spent the previous four playoff weeks outmaneuvering, outperforming and outclassing opposition, had to simply outlast its final one.
Ahead by 21 at halftime Friday night, Plant (13-1) allowed Manatee to get back into the Class 5A state final before staging a couple of crucial defensive stands to escape with a 21-14 triumph. The state crown was the Panthers' third — most of any program in Hillsborough County in the playoff era — in four years.
"I just wanted to get to this moment so I could breathe again," Panthers coach Robert Weiner said.
Wilder's sentiments were similar.
"All my tiredness just went away," he said with a broad smile. "I feel like Superman right now."
For parts of the contest, played before a Citrus Bowl crowd of 6,725, Wilder played like him. His final numbers: 20 carries for 137 yards, four tackles, two sacks, a pass breakup and one 41-yard touchdown run that will live on in South Tampa lore.
With 3:06 to play in the first half, Wilder took a Phillip Ely handoff up the middle, escaped a logjam, burst to his left, bounced off three Manatee defenders and lumbered into the end zone for a 41-yard score that gave Plant a 21-0 lead.
"I told (Weiner) before the game, 'This is J-Dub's game. This is my dream of winning the state championship, coming out here and doing it,' " Wilder said. "Coach pulled me to the side and said, 'Let me see that different J-Dub.' "
Weiner saw it instantly.
On the opening drive of the night, he gained 44 yards on five carries as the Panthers drove 80 yards in 11 plays, the last one a 20-yard Ely touchdown pass to Eric Dungy. On its next possession, Plant moved 87 yards in 10 plays, finished by DeAndre Queen's 2-yard touchdown.
"(The opening drive) was kind of reminiscent of last week when we came out against Lakeland," Weiner said. "We didn't chew up as much time off the clock, but it was really like clockwork and it was really an excellent drive."
Besieged by penalties at critical times, Manatee drove to the Plant 7 to open the second half before a false start and holding whistle quelled the threat.
When the Hurricanes (13-2) finally scored, on quarterback Brion Carnes' 34-yard pass to Quenton Bundrage on fourth and 6, it ended the Plant defense's streak of eight consecutive scoreless playoff quarters.
Kicker Colby Lengel then recovered his own onside kick, with 3:42 to play in the third. But on the following play, Wilder got an outstretched paw on a Carnes pass, enabling Allen Sampson to pick it off.
"The guy's an absolute animal," Weiner said. "He's a beast."
Yet Wilder's heroics were matched by at least two less-heralded Panthers.
On arguably the game's most pivotal play, a Manatee fourth and inches at the Plant 25 with 5:43 remaining, Carnes was stuffed on a sneak. Filling the A-gap were two-way lineman Jon Vega and senior Joe Pappas, limited to two previous games by a back injury.
On the previous Manatee possession, Carnes had hit Mike Blakely in the flat on third and 15 for an 87-yard gain, setting up Blakely's 2-yard run on the next play to make it 21-14.
"I don't think our kids ever at one time came off the field and said, 'Okay, this is all falling apart,' " Weiner said.
After the critical fourth-and-1 stop, Plant mounted a 10-play drive that resulted in no points, but left the Hurricanes with 87 seconds to play and no timeouts. Four Hurricanes incompletions later, the Panthers were celebrating state titles in triplicate.
"It's unreal," said first-year starting defensive end David McCarthy (10 tackles). "It still hasn't hit me yet. I'll wake up tomorrow morning and be like, 'Wow, we won a state title.' "