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0-9 Panthers not losing their spirit

The T-shirts worn by football players at Plant High _ The Pride Is Inside _ express their true emotions.

"We have pride, just like any other team," senior offensive tackle Chris Tanner said. "We want to win."

There's one final opportunity. The Panthers (0-9) will try to avoid the first winless season in school history Friday when they travel to Lakeland Jenkins for a Class 5A, District 11 game. Jenkins (4-3) is alive for a playoff spot.

"When you lose, there can be finger-pointing and people throwing the blame to others," Plant coach Steve Coleman said. "Or a bunch of rats leaving a sinking ship. We don't have rats here. We haven't had any of that. That speaks to the character of our kids.

"We don't have a lot of Monday blues here. We continue to work hard in practice. We have basically the same we started the season with. Hey, we're like anyone else. We play this game to win. Now our job is to figure out how to get that done."

Winning rarely was a problem during Plant's recent history. The Panthers had Hillsborough County's most dominant program through the 1970s and '80s. Former coach Roland Acosta had six playoff teams, but retired in 1994 after 1-9 and 3-7 seasons. Coleman, Acosta's long-time assistant, has gone 5-5, 3-7 and now 0-9.

Including stints at East Bay and Bloomingdale, Coleman is 13-66 as a head coach.

"Sometimes, you can't measure success by wins and losses," said Plant athletic director Jeff Vardo, whose two sons play for Coleman. "Even in a wayward season, our kids haven't stopped trying. And I've heard coach Coleman talk to them about fighting through adversity, about learning life's lessons.

"You know, there was a time when Hillsborough was stubbing its toes in football. Lately, they've gone to the playoffs every year. I do think some things go in cycles. And I do know there's reason for future optimism here."

The Panther quarterbacks, Grant Rhodes and Teree Smith, are juniors. The junior-varsity team was 5-0 and unscored upon.

"The Plant program will be back on top I firmly believe that," Coleman said.

For now, the Panthers will rely on running back Darren West (520 yards), the Trey Alexander-led offensive line and a determined defense. Plant's depth was hit when the boundaries changed and some of its players were shifted to first-year Blake.

"We don't have much size and we don't have much speed," junior offensive tackle Steve Eason said. "There are not any big-time Division I prospects out here. We're blue-collar, all the way. I think we work as hard as anybody. We just don't have any wins to show for it."

"You walk the halls of this school and see an amazing amount of good athletes who do not play football," Tanner said. "Sometimes, you wonder what it would be like (with them). But you don't want guys who are going to quit. The players we do have are persistent and hard-working."

Tanner said the players have bonded during winless times. Not all the memories involve a defeat. He pointed to a 33-30 win over East Bay last season.

"We rallied with some late touchdowns and our student body stormed the field," Tanner said. "There was a lot of happiness that night. That will probably be my best memory. I'd just like to experience that feeling one more time before our high-school careers end."