Sunday, November 18, 2018
Sports

Plant-Hillsborough rivalry steeped in history

TAMPA — Earl Garcia was sitting in his office across the street from Hillsborough High School one evening 15 years ago when an old man stopped by for a visit, VHS tape in tow. The man asked if he could show Garcia what was on the tape, so the longtime Terriers coach popped it in the VCR. Immediately, a piece of Hillsborough County football lore showed up on the screen.

On that tape was the 1946 game between Plant and Hillsborough, a tradition that was started in the 1920s and is still thought to be the oldest high school rivalry in the state.

"You see that guy right here? No. 45?" the man asked Garcia. "That's your dad."

Earl Garcia Sr., who played for the team his son has now coached for the past 25 years, died when Garcia was just 11 years old. And while that game tape provided Garcia a piece of family history, it also has served as a teaching tool for his own players about the rivalry that started it all in Hillsborough County.

"He gave it to me, and we show those kids that tape every year," said Garcia, a Plant alumnus. "It's really hilarious. That place was sold out, thousands of people there, everyone was in hoop skirts. It kind of gives a time line to how long we've been playing."

Friday night, Hillsborough and Plant will square off in a season opener, extending a tradition that has become a little bit less of one in recent years. For generations, the matchup was a focal point of the season. Once dubbed the "Turkey Bowl," the game used to be played every Thanksgiving at Tampa Stadium.

Friday, the teams will play for just the second time in six seasons, after last year's matchup was cancelled because of a storm and never rescheduled.

Despite the brief lapse in tradition, memories of classic Plant-Hillsborough matchups abound. For Kenric Montgomery Sr., who played for Garcia in 1996 when the Terriers went to the state championship, the rivalry comes full circle. His son, Ken Montgomery, a senior UCLA commit, is a cornerback for the Terriers.

"A lot of times I run into people from Plant I played against, and we're like, 'Man, we used to schedule you guys for homecoming.' We used to beat up on Plant pretty good, but now it seems like the rivalry has flipped itself," the elder Montgomery said. "You'd think 20 years is such a long time, but it's amazing how fast it goes by."

For Weiner and the rest of the Plant staff, they're glad it has.

In 2005 the Panthers lost 31-14 to Hillsborough. It was Weiner's second season at the helm for Plant, and the Panthers had lost the past 17 matchups with their rival. When Weiner met Garcia to shake hands at midfield, it was with a sense of frustrated defeat.

"I was like, 'Earl, this is not a rivalry,' " Weiner recalled. "'We have to win a couple games to consider this a rivalry.' "

And ever since that day, that's exactly what Plant has done.

The Panthers have won the past six matchups, and Weiner can still quote stats from memory that reflect the recent success his teams have had against their longtime rival. In 2006 and 2007, Weiner said, it was the Cornelius Gallon show, as the wide receiver and cornerback came down with the winning interception as a junior and posted 222 all-purpose yards the next year to lead the Panthers to victory twice.

Now, Gallon serves on Weiner's staff as a wide receivers coach, and he's made it a personal mission to ensure current players understand the magnitude of the game they're about to play.

"I don't know if Earl knows that Gallon is on my staff," said Weiner, laughing, "but Earl will most definitely cringe when he sees Cornelius step onto that field."

Garcia and Weiner agree their teams need to play every season, but being in different classifications has made scheduling tough at times. Garcia said he'd love to see it played on a special day, like a Saturday or a Thursday, to make the matchup stand out, and Weiner has often wondered about the feasibility of playing on a University of Tampa field with the city skyline as a backdrop.

But until the annual tradition is officially restored, both coaches simply try and explain the meaning behind something that started generations before their players' were born.

Weiner said he and his staff — including linebackers coach Greg Meyer, who played in three Plant-Hillsborough games as a student in the 1990s — tell them stories of games past. Displayed in the fieldhouse that sits behind Dad's Stadium are five game-used footballs from Plant-Hillsborough matchups, the faded scores still visible on the leather that has been tattered and torn with age.

"These kids, in their generation, they think a little more about Armwood and those matchups. But (Hillsborough), that's something we hold dear to us," Meyer said. "It's easy to look past if you don't understand the full history of it. But for us, that's all we wanted. Beat Hillsborough."

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