TAMPA — When Hillsborough County's prep football teams began gathering for training camps in August, all had dreams of playing for a state championship.
And at least three teams possess realistic chances of that actually happening. Fast forward four months and those three — Jefferson, Plant and Armwood — have made that dream a reality.
All three won their state semifinal contests last week to advance to state championships games.
Jefferson had to rally and hold on for a 28-27 win against St. Augustine in the Class 3A semifinal.
For Plant, their last hurdle was surprisingly easy via a 48-6 blowout against a strong Lakeland team in the Class 5A semifinal.
And Armwood needed the heroics of a late field goal to upend Dwyer (Palm Beach Gardens) 22-20 and advance in the Class 4A semifinal.
After falling behind in the first quarter, Jefferson had to rally and survive a dogfight against St. Augustine. And for all of the Dragons' offensive fireworks this season, it took a converted fourth down and inches to move them on to the state title game.
Jefferson quarterback Quentin Williams threw for 240 yards and two touchdowns (his 52nd and 53rd of the season) but it was his 1-yard run on that fourth down and subsequent 2-yard touchdown run that lifted the Dragons to the win.
Plant, meanwhile, was going up against a Lakeland program that owns six state championship rings. But the Dreadnaughts were no match for Plant.
The Panthers' Eric Patterson returned the opening kickoff 87 yards for a score and running back James Wilder Jr. followed with five rushing touchdowns in the 42-point victory.
By the time the game was over, Wilder, who piled up 215 yards rushing, was signing autographs for the Lakeland fans and cheerleaders. The Panthers were without quarterback Phillip Ely (back injury) but senior Nick Sanders filled in and the offense barely missed a beat.
Jefferson (14-0) will play Miami Norland (13-1) at 1 p.m. today at the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando for the Class 3A state crown.
Plant (12-2) faces Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas (14-0) in the Class 5A state championship game today at 7 p.m. at the Citrus Bowl.
Armwood (14-0) will play Tallahassee Lincoln (10-4) in the Class 4A championship game at 1 p.m. Saturday at at the Citrus Bowl.
3A STATE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Jefferson (14-0) vs. Miami Norland (13-1)
When: 1 p.m. today at the Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando
Title game appearances: Jefferson lost in the finals in 2002 (4A) and 2004 (3A). Norland won the state championship in 2002 (6A).
Last Week: Jefferson defeated St. Augustine, 28-27; Norland beat South Fort Myers, 44-28.
The Skinny: Jefferson has ridden the arm of senior quarterback Quentin Williams all season. He broke the state single season touchdown pass mark last week with his 52nd and 53rd of the year, topping the mark of 51, previously held by former Plant QB Aaron Murray.
Norland counters with a hard running team, led by Randy "Duke" Johnson, who compiled 1,300 yards and 16 TDs this year.
The Edge: Both teams can score points, so this may come down to who can play defense when it counts the most. Jefferson's defense, led by LB Ramik Wilson can do just that — as it proved last week in its semifinal win.
5A STATE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Plant (12-2) vs. St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale) (14-0)
When: 7 p.m. today at the Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando
Title game appearances: Plant won state titles in 2006 (4A), 2008 (4A) and 2009 (5A). St. Thomas Aquinas has reached 12 state title games, winning five. Its most recent titles were in 2007 (5A) and 2008 (5A).
Last Week: Plant beat Lakeland, 48-6, in the 5A state semifinal; St. Thomas Aquinas defeated Manatee, 31-7.
The Skinny: Plant absolutely blasted a good Lakeland team last week in easy fashion. The Panthers have relied on RB James Wilder Jr. throughout the playoffs and he has not disappointed. He scored five touchdowns in the semifinal victory as QB Phillip Ely sat with back spasms. Ely likely will be back for the title game, but Nick Sanders is a more than capable fill in.
Speaking of quarterbacks, Aquinas has one of the best in the state in Jacob Rudock (2,500 yards, 34 TDs, 2 INTs). His top targets, Phillip Dorsett and Rashad Greene, have combined for 80 catches and 23 TDs this season.
The Edge: Since its early-season struggles with injuries and a tough out-of-area schedule, Plant has regrouped and been dominant in the playoffs. And the Panthers are about to face their toughest opponent in an Aquinas team that has given up a total of 47 points in its past 10 games and is coming off a pasting of a Manatee team that advanced to last year's state championship game.
This is a matchup of two talent-laden teams with great offenses and plenty of big-game experience that likely will come down to one or two plays.
4A STATE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Armwood (14-0) vs. Tallahassee Lincoln (10-4)
When: 1 p.m. Saturday at the Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando
Title game appearances: Armwood won state titles in 2003 (4A) and 2004 (4A) and played in the championship game in 2005 (4A). Lincoln won state titles in 1999 (6A) and 2001 (4A) and played for a state tile in 2008 (4A), losing to Plant.
Last Week: Armwood beat Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer, 22-20, in the 4A state semifinal; Lincoln beat Gainesville, 36-14.
The Skinny: Armwood's stingy defense, led by LB Eric Striker and S Jermaine McKinney, has led the Hawks all season, but it was Ash Dudney's 44-yard field goal that propelled the team in last week's semifinal. The team will look to that formula again and hope to get another standout performance from both dual-threat QB Josh Grady and RB Matt Jones.
Lincoln, no stranger to this game, will call upon running back Javorious Allen, one of the state's top recruits, to help its team keep pace.
The Edge: Almost all of the points Armwood has allowed in the post-season can be attributed to turnovers or penalties. When the Hawks don't snap the ball over the punter's head, fumble on the opponent's 5-yard line or incur a rash of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, they can be formidable. It is not coach Sean Callahan's most talented team, but it definitely plays with more heart than Armwood teams of recent years. If Armwood can minimize mistakes and maintain defensive dominance, it should come home with a title.