BRADENTON — ESPN tried to coax a playoff atmosphere out of a preseason game, and initially, Plant obliged.
They talked as if this exhibition rematch of a state final was real. There was momentum to attain, impressions to make, stars to showcase.
But as the fourth-quarter running clock mercifully wound down and the 6,000 or so fans filed out of Hawkins Stadium late Friday, the Panther partisans could only find consolation in the fact this one didn't count.
On a humid night, Plant lost its aura of invincibility, some of its swagger, and even its quarterback for a stretch in a 48-10 loss to Manatee that ended with Division I-A commitments James Wilder Jr. and Tony Posada nursing cramps.
Not to mention a team — ranked No. 2 in the Powerade ESPN Rise Fab 50 coming in — nursing its psyche.
"We're a team that's always been able to turn a negative into a positive," said Panthers coach Robert Weiner, whose squad also lost to the Hurricanes in the 2009 preseason before rebounding to top Manatee in the Class 5A final.
"This is where you find out whether they have the mental makeup or not."
Before Plant's wheels came off, Antonio Crawford showcased his. On the game's first play, the 5-foot-11 junior took a short swing pass from Phillip Ely and darted up the Manatee sideline for an 80-yard touchdown.
From there, the 'Canes embarked on a 48-3 run.
Manatee responded with a six-play, 53-yard scoring drive capped by wildcat formation quarterback Mike Blakely's 2-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Krull.
Two Panther possessions later, Ely injured his lower right leg after being tackled inside his own red zone and fumbling. Manatee scored the next play and Ely exited the rest of the half.
Weiner said Ely, who returned in the second half and unofficially finished with 154 passing yards, stretched a muscle in the leg. Ely said afterward his leg was "perfect."
His defense, manhandled up front and occasionally discombobulated in the back, wasn't. Nor were the Panthers' special teams; new kicker Grant Van Aman made two TD-saving tackles on long 'Cane returns.
Manatee made it 21-7 when Blakely broke at least a half-dozen tackles on a sweep play for an 89-yard TD. Three plays later, Ely backup Nick Sanders fumbled inside his 20 after taking a vicious hit in his backfield.
Manatee lefty Cord Sandberg tossed the first of his two TDs the next play. Sandberg finished with nearly 200 total yards.
"This was a true test tonight and obviously it didn't turn out the way we wanted it," Ely said. "But I'm going to will this team to win."