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One test remains

More than 10 minutes after the final horn sounded, more than 5,000 fans stood inside Dad's Stadium and screamed Plant! Plant! Plant!," the word resounding throughout South Tampa.

Yes, Plant, which had never played in a state championship football game, had finally made it, beating Miami Booker T. Washington 20-15 Friday in a Class 4A semifinal.

"Yes!" Plant quarterback Robert Marve screamed at the crowd just before he bear-hugged his coach, Bob Weiner, who took over the Panthers three years ago after they had gone 1-9 in 2003.

"We did it!" Marve screamed. "We did it!" Perhaps never more throughout its 14-0 march through this season was the "We" more prevalent for the Panthers.

Heroes?

How about Marve, who threw for 218 yards, completing 13-of-24 passes, two for touchdowns, giving him 45 for the season (one behind the state record of 46 set in 2004 by Tim Tebow).

Then there was Derek Winter, who had eight catches for 101 yards, including the go-ahead touchdown late in the third quarter. Winter also played full time at defensive back and intercepted a pass late in the third quarter.

After that you could give a game ball to Plant's entire defense, which held Washington's explosive offense scoreless in the second half, intercepted three fourth-quarter passes and pounced on two fumbles.

It was Plant's defense, in fact, that bowed up twice in the fourth quarter when Washington pushed the ball inside Plant's 20-yard line. Defensive back Chris Kuzdale ended one threat with an interception and linebacker Chris Breit snuffed another by returning a fumble more than 25 yards.

In the final five minutes, holding the 20-15 lead, Weiner said he pretty much "put faith in the defense," meaning instead of throwing, which Plant has done for more than 4,000 yards this season, Weiner started calling handoffs.

"We had to run the clock down," he said. "We had to run it down. We made great adjustments at halftime and pretty much shut them down in the second half. I knew they could get it done."

On the flip side, it appeared in the game's opening minutes that Plant might suck some life out of Washington. Less than five minutes in, Plant had marched 78 yards in nine plays, the final one a 21-yard touchdown pass to Cam Martin.

Washington answered with a 65-yard touchdown drive that took less than thee minutes. After trading touchdowns midway through the second quarter, the Tornadoes took the lead into halftime, 15-14 after a 43-yard field goal as time ran out in the half.

The only score after intermission was the longest drawn-out battle of the night. The drive was 56 yards but the final eight plays happened all inside Washington's 10-yard line. Two times the drive was revived with pass interference calls in the end zone.

"That was like pulling teeth," Weiner said. "But hey, if they don't (pass interfere) those (fades to the corner) are touchdowns. We just kept coming and coming at them and finally (on a 5-yard pass to Winter) we got the (winning) score."

Now it's off to Dolphin Stadium in Miami next Saturday at 1 p.m. where the Panthers take on defending state champion Ponte Vedra Beach Nease, which is 14-0 after beating Tallahassee Lincoln 35-21 in the other state semifinal.

The loss, meantime, left Washington at 12-2 for this season and losers in the past four Class 4A state semifinals, the previous three to Armwood.

"Sometimes we play more aggressive and sometimes it has hurt us in situations like this," said Washington coach Tim Harris, whose cap read "Finish the Drill" in reference to his plans for finally winning a state semifinal. "The team that makes the least mistakes wins these things. That's the way it goes."

Up next

Plant faces Ponte Verde Beach Nease next Saturday at Dolphin Stadium in Miami at 1 p.m. for the state championship.

Check out our Plant photo gallery at sports.tampabay.com.

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