TAMPA — Just as he had done two weeks ago in an overtime thriller, Colby Brown got Plant right back in Friday's game with a 55-yard pass, this time to Cameron Winter for a touchdown.
The Panthers were back within two scores of Apopka in the Class 8A state semifinal, and they had an entire quarter with which to work the come-from-behind magic they'd exhibited in some of the biggest games this season.
All they needed was a three and out, and the ball — not to mention the momentum — would be theirs.
Against the Darters' record-setting offense, though, that would be easier said than done. Apopka recovered an onside kick immediately following Winter's touchdown, and on the first play of the drive, JJ Simmons rushed for a 32-yard touchdown.
The Darters held onto the lead and earned their second straight 8A championship berth with a 45-29 win.
"It always comes down to it could've or it should've," linebacker Andrew Beck said. "There were a couple times we should have made stops, and we didn't."
Whether Plant (11-2-1) could put points up of their own never seemed to be in question. The issue for the Panthers was stopping Apopka from putting up more.
Apopka (13-1) went up 14-0 in the first half after touchdowns from tailback Robert Thomas and fullback Chandler Cox, who took most of the snaps for Apopka's unique single-wing offense.
Alex "Buda" Jackson, who finished the night with three touchdowns, got Plant right back in the game 22 seconds before halftime when he caught a 9-yard pass, shaking a Darter defender off in the process.
Apopka scored a field goal and a touchdown to take a 17-point lead in the third quarter, but the Panthers didn't go down without a fight. They came within 10 points twice in the final 15 minutes.
"We kept knocking on the door to get within that one-score range," said Plant coach Robert Weiner after his first playoff loss at Dad's Stadium. "We could never quite get there."
Plant quarterback Colby Brown, who threw for 355 yards and four touchdowns, didn't help matters by throwing three interceptions — one of which was returned for a touchdown — in the fourth quarter, all while desperately trying to keep his team's fifth state championship hopes alive.
Following a Jackson 21-yard touchdown reception, Apopka, having recovered its second onside kick of the night, had the ball in Plant territory with a minute to play.
The Darters already had 406 yards of offense and the 16-point lead with which they would finish, so they decided to put it away.
Beck knew the game was over; it had been for several minutes. But hearing the Darters' call to take a knee, he finally knew it was real. His heart was broken, but he forced his mind to stay sharp.
"You've got to look around and remember the atmosphere because you know it's over," he said. "There's nothing you can do about it."