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Plant stadium casts its own spell

TAMPA — Call it the Deflection at Dad's.

Fourth and long, the Panthers, down by a touchdown, backed up to their 3-yard line with less than two minutes to go in a second-round playoff game against Orlando Dr. Phillips on Nov. 22.

Quarterback Colby Brown heaves a pass 25 yards downfield.

Interception, Plant's Fletcher Barnes thought as he ran toward the play.

A pair of wide-open Dr. Phillips defenders leapt for the easy pick, inexplicably colliding in midair.

They landed hard on the ground.

The ball landed softly in Barnes' hands.

His unlikely reception helped lead the Panthers to the end zone, and later on, a 24-23 overtime win.

A gift from the Gods?

More like a gift from the Dads.

•••

So, was it magic? Is there wizardry at work, and did the builders that put together Dad's Stadium go to school at Hogwarts?

Or is it something simpler that explains 21 straight playoff victories at the best place to watch a high school football in Tampa Bay?

A convergence of forces, if you will — the water tower looming over the awning that protects the standing room-only throng of fans chanting "Plant, Plant, Plant," propelled and energized by Robert Schoos' most excellent band — that somehow makes greatness, and magic, happen?

"I think there's something to it," coach Robert Weiner said. "The Dr. Phillips game may have raised that to a whole 'nother level. Maybe that was Dad's (Stadium), I don't know, maybe the big Dad had a hand in that one."

There have been other otherworldly events like it. Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer had two touchdowns called back, Armwood hooked a 32-yard field goal with eight seconds left, Booker T. Washington threw three interceptions in the fourth quarter.

While big names such as Robert Marve and Aaron Murray and James Wilder Jr. and Orson Charles have fueled Plant's rise, the Panther pixie dust has been spread wide. Histrionics on Himes is nothing new.

In 2006, Luke Rorech rallied the Panthers against Osceola, the first of four memorable playoff wins at Dad's.

In 2008, DeAndre Queen ran one of the Panthers' most famous reverses in a win over Dwyer.

In 2010, a quarterback named Nick Sanders stepped in to help Plant to a running clock win over undefeated Lakeland.

All in the home stadium, in front of capacity crowds of roughly 5,000.

Enchanting, you say?

The aluminum awning, which makes the place look like an old racetrack — and the original bleachers were actually donated from the old Speedway Park — maximizes the sound, the band's cacophony of deafening jock rock making it impossible to hear teams break their huddles.

"Schoos gets it," said Weiner of Plant's band director. "He knows when to play, he knows when not to play."

Winning, of course, has fueled everything that is great about Dad's Stadium. It is the best place to see a game in Tampa Bay, maybe the state, and its mystique cannot be denied.

"We've won there, we've lost there," said Armwood coach Sean Callahan, though he has never won there in the playoffs.

"One thing, clearly, is they have the best homefield advantage in Hillsborough County."

•••

If anyone has a shot at ending Plant's Dad's Stadium playoff streak it's Apopka, a team with a good bit of mystique itself.

The Darters (12-1) have had a record-breaking season despite being riddled with injuries on offense. It's fair to say Apopka, which averages 520 yards of offense, has the better chance of advancing to the 8A state championship game come tonight.

But Weiner knows his Panthers have at least one intangible advantage in their back pocket.

However, Weiner knows that can all change. When the Panthers played Lakeland at Bryant Stadium, the Dreadnaughts had a similar mystique, aided by 7,000-plus fans and a Jumbotron scoreboard. That night, the Panthers, via Wilder's infamous touchdown with half of Polk County on his back trying to drag him down, shut out the Dreadnaughts.

Mystique shattered.

"Sometimes, (Dad's) is an advantage for us and a disadvantage for other team," Weiner said. "We didn't let Lakeland be a disadvantage for us. You could feel my team, that the louder their fans were, the stronger my team was.

"I think Apopka will use it the same way."

In his 12 years as head coach at Apopka, Rick Darlington has never coached a game at Dad's Stadium. But its reputation precedes it.

"I used to think that Bryant Stadium was the best atmosphere," Darlington said, "but now I've heard that Plant has kind of taken over that role."

Apopka won't be awed by tonight's atmosphere. The Darters are too good for that.

But the Panthers are convinced home will be sweet one more time, and bewitching to the opposition.

"I don't think they know about playing at Dad's," Barnes said. "I'm not going to say it'll be an awakening for them … but I don't think they've played anyone where it's just like, 'Wow.' "

News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Plant stadium casts its own spell 12/05/13 [Last modified: Thursday, December 5, 2013 11:03pm]
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