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Epidemic of football fever sweeps South Tampa

The vibe at Plant High School was already coming to a crescendo.

This week, the office phone rang nonstop and student assistant Rani Sinno, 17, repeated the same answers.

"No, we aren't preselling football game tickets. They'll go on sale at 5 p.m. for $7."

Today's game is the hot South Tampa ticket: Plant will play Miami Booker T. Washington in the Class 4A region semifinals. The school is two wins away from the state championship - the closest Plant has ever come.

Sinno hasn't missed a game yet this season.

He was among 6,000 fans attending last week's Plant-Armwood playoff game.

Fans slathered themselves in black and gold paint and a line for tickets snaked about 100 yards around the school.

Parking lots overflowed into the neighboring streets and latecomers stood on pickup trucks to see over the fence.

"A lot of people get crazy on Fridays," 18-year-old Jamie Johnson said.

She and Nick McKaig, 18, direct the school band during games.

"We've gotten really good at the fight song," McKaig said. They play it every time the team scores.

"It never gets old," said J.J. Marion, 18, who plays a trumpet solo during halftime.

McKaig dons a cape and a hat with a feather plume for each game. He often wishes he could turn around to watch the game rather than face the band.

His ears ring when he gets home. "It's absolutely incredible," he said.

If they win tonight, Plant will play Dec. 9 in Miami for the state championship.

The hub of the excitement centers in Plant's Field House, the team's locker room.

A thick, musty odor greets the nose at the door.

That's the product of 16 weeks' worth of sweat baked into clothes in the lockers that line the room, Coach Bob Weiner said on Tuesday.

Bananas lay in a row on a central table. Two hundred are delivered every week to prevent players from cramping.

"The football field is a classroom," said Weiner, a former tennis player, marathoner and English teacher. "There's much more to it than just football. If it was just football, it wouldn't get under their skin like it does."

Before each game, Weiner tells the team they have to earn another week.

As a game nears, they get centered with some PlayStation football or music.

Sometimes it's Neil Diamond, sometimes heavy metal.

Someone invariably borrows Weiner's iPod, which has 9,126 selections, from Mozart to Dr. Dre.

Plant's star quarterback, Robert Marve, came to Weiner as a sophomore.

"He said, 'Coach, whatever I need to become the best person, the best football player that I can become, tell me right now.' "

Starting in Marve's junior year, Weiner wrote out weekly schedules and Marve checked them off. When to eat vitamins, an orange, a banana and 14 walnuts. When to work out. When to study videos of past football games. When to do homework.

Weiner believes in the power of words. He likes to throw quotes to his players - anyone from Henry David Thoreau to Eminem. Sometimes, the words are his own.

On Tuesday he had written on the quote board inside the Field House:

"Last week Miami was 273 miles from Plant High School. Today it's one step away. Take that step."

Elisabeth Dyer can be reached at (813) 226-3321 or