PLANT CITY — After coaching the Plant City flag football team's defense for the past six years, Larry Langston moved to the offensive side of the ball.
Ever since, the Raiders' defense has been, well, almost perfect.
"Maybe I should have switched sides a long time ago," Langston said with a chuckle.
Plant City's defense has surrendered just 20 points this season and has been a main reason the undefeated Raiders are the prohibitive favorite heading into next week's district tournament.
"It's a cliche but it's so true: Defense wins championships," Langston said.
No team in the county has been better on defense than the Raiders. Plant City shut out its opponents through the first seven games before allowing a touchdown last week against Tampa Bay Tech.
"They have been amazing," Langston said, "just about as good as you can get."
Inside linebacker Whitney Sanford leads the team with nine interceptions and "has been a ball hawk" all season, Langston said. Complementing her on the outside is Taylor Wyatt, a versatile defender.
"We have been able to get key interceptions and stops when we needed them," Langston said. "There are a few times teams have been inside our 10-yard line and we got a pick or turnover on downs."
But the coach said the key to the defense has been the play of rusher Shay Wright. Langston said the sophomore is averaging "about six sacks" per game.
"Shay is a terror," he said. "She's the best rusher we've had here by a long shot, and we've had some good ones."
Langston said the streak his defense put together was talked about behind closed doors but not mentioned to the players. Although he said they were aware of the remarkable run, few discussed it.
"It's kind of like when you're throwing a no-hitter," he said. "We didn't want to mess it up by talking about it. But now that it's over, we can focus on just getting wins. But it was a pretty big deal."
But the Raiders have more dimensions than just their stout defense. Plant City, led by quarterback Catie Evans, is averaging 25 points per game. Evans has thrown for more than 2,000 yards and tossed nearly 30 TDs. Her main targets, receivers Amy Booher and Ali Grimmel, have combined for the bulk of those yards.
Kristen Wyckoff, who also plays softball, has run back a pair of touchdowns in limited work while splitting time on the diamond.
"Kristen is just so fast and we get her out here when we can," Langston said. "I don't want the softball team to lose, but it wouldn't be the worst thing if we could have her around more."
Plant City was tested in its finale, coming from behind to take the lead on an Evans TD pass to Kasey Worlock on the final play against Newsome. Langston said it was good for his team to get in a game like that before districts start.
Newsome is "a good team, but we were sloppy up until that last drive," he said. "My heart nearly gave out."
Another big part of Plant City's success has been its dedication. The Raiders reached the state final four in two of the past three years, including losing the championship game in 2008. This year's team, though not as athletically gifted as previous years, does the little things well, Langston said. The girls gladly practice on Saturdays, watch film and have dedicated themselves to a more intricate offensive playbook.
"We do a lot of chalk talk," he said. "Our offense used to be just about (the receivers) finding a place to sit down in the zone, kind of like sandlot. Now we're running more precise routes and the girls are really into it."
Should the Raiders, a team with just one senior starter, navigate through the playoffs successfully, a showdown with Tallahassee Leon awaits. That's the team that knocked Plant City out of the playoffs in 2008 and 2010.
"And that," Langston said, "would be sweet justice."
Brandon Wright can be reached at email@example.com.