RIVERVIEW — Dale Caparaso and moral victories are no more compatible than Tim Tebow and profanity. But perhaps never before had Spoto's coach stood in the wake of a two-touchdown loss with more pride.
"I told our team I think we gained more respect for ourselves in the one loss than we did in the six wins," Caparaso said.
Before arguably the biggest crowd ever to squeeze into the Spartans' stadium, the Class 3A hosts (6-1) showed fight, fortitude and — much to their demise — fumbling propensity. Exploiting that final trait, Plant (6-1) pulled away for a 27-13 victory.
"We held our own," said Caparaso, whose team lost four fumbles. "It would've been interesting to see what the score would've been if we had no turnovers and didn't put the ball on the ground at all."
Which is to say, it would have been interesting to see what might have happened had the Panthers defense not spent most of the night in Spoto's backfield.
While holding their own defensively the first 24 minutes, the Spartans could muster nothing against a Plant defense that now can rightfully claim to being called the county's best. Subtract a Jamar Burns 78-yard touchdown run, and Spoto had two first-half first downs and 18 total yards. Yet the score at halftime was only 10-7, Plant.
"They've got a lot of good players on their team," Panthers coach Robert Weiner said. "We know we've got a lot more players than they do, and we knew if it was close going into the second half and we were ahead that we would have a chance to wear them down a little bit."
Indeed, Plant pounced immediately after halftime. Phillip Ely's 48-yard completion to T.J. Glover set up James Wilder's 14-yard touchdown run the next play, giving the Panthers an 18-7 lead with 9:52 to play in the third. A fumble on the ensuing Spoto possession set up Glover's 43-yard scoring run.
Facing a defense that had surrendered 13 points all season, Ely finished 15-for-34 for 189 yards, one interception and a 5-yard rushing TD. By contrast, Spartans counterpart James Brown completed only two passes, rarely having time to cock his arm.
"We probably could've closed the door much earlier if we had converted on some things as well," said Weiner, who watched two Panthers TDs get nullified by penalties. "But our defense has just been tremendous all along."