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Hairy prankster goes for the glory

It's not easy being a black panther, especially in Florida. Face it, hot and humid don't exactly go paw in paw with black and furry.

But at Henry B. Plant High, where the football team is one win away from the state championship, the Plant Panther soldiers on.

It takes a fearless feline to do the job, especially at football games. Your chief duty is to inspire the crowd, no easy feat when the football team goes 12 seasons without a winning record, as it did from 1993 through 2004.

Sure, you get plenty of love at Dad's Stadium, where the football team has ruled all comers this year and rabid fans pack the stadium with panther pride.

But all is not perfect: The concession stand sells hot dogs and pizza, but no tuna. And the track and field team gets a little upset when you use the long jump pit as a litter box.

Still, if there's any year to be the Plant Panther, this is the one.

On Nov. 2, Margaret Anderson won a second straight state swimming title (in the 50-yard freestyle). On Nov. 11, cross country runner Brigithe Moreno won an individual state title in the afternoon, and the volleyball team won a state title in the evening.

Football is typically a different story. While the team had a phenomenal run under coach Roland Acosta from the mid 1970s through the mid 1980s, most Plant students weren't alive for any of it. The football team had all of eight wins in the three seasons preceding 2005.

But in 2006, Dad's Stadium is more fun for this kitty than a bowlful of catnip-laced lizards.

The football team won all of its games here. It won all of its games on the road. It took out Miami's Booker T. Washington High 20-15 here last week to proceed to Saturday's Class 4A state final against Ponte Vedra Beach Nease.

At the risk of destroying the mystique of the Plant Panther, rumor has it the school's icon might not actually be a real panther. It might be a student dressed up in a big black furry suit.

Which, honestly, would explain a few things. Like how the Panther has been around, oh, six times longer than its life expectancy. How it walks around, dances and flashes punk rock signs to the crowd with its paws.

And, finally, how it manages to smack cheerleaders and football players on the butt during the games without leaving unseemly claw marks.

Plant junior Mary Kate Harvie provided the lowdown: She's the Panther.

More specifically, she's one of two students this season to don the catsuit. The other is sophomore Julia Lippe. But Harvie was fabulously furry in the win over Washington, and she'll be prowling the sidelines Saturday.

Why Harvie?

"I'm just kinda wild," she explained, skipping math class (with permission granted) to chat with a reporter outside the school Tuesday.

"I'm the type of person - well, if my friends were here, and someone was playing music, I'd jump up on this table and start dancing right now."

Harvie's packed with Plant pride. Her three siblings, all brothers, are Plant grads. She's the type to jump up at a pep rally with her friends and just start dancing in front of everyone to the Southern rap hit Walk It Out.

It doesn't always work so well in the Panther costume, she admits: "With the big feet, it's a little hard to, you know, walk it out."

Harvie's not tall - 5-1, maybe 5-2, she said - so the Panther outfit is a little big on her. Last year the Panther was a guy, a fairly tall one, she said, and the Panther pants "were like high-waters on him."

But ultimately, it's not the size of the Panther but the size of its heart. And Harvie plans to give her all in helping root the football team to victory Saturday.

She expects and predicts victory. And why not? It's like Tampa's favorite fugitive, Wesley Snipes, said in the movie Passenger 57:

Always bet on black.

Times staff writer Joey Knight contributed to this report. Rick Gershman can be reached at rgershman@sptimes.com or 226-3431. His Times blog, the Ill Literate, is at www.sptimes.com/blogs/ tampaarts.

FAST FACTS

The Plant Panther

Age: 80 (like Burt Reynolds, must dye fur).

Fashion sense: Black never goes out of style.

Vocation: Rooting teams on to victory while occasionally slapping cheerleaders' behinds.

Evolutionary oddities: Can walk on hind legs, does the chicken dance and has a detachable head.

Achilles' heel: Excess body hair is a big no-no in South Tampa.

Family: Does not litter.

Weekend plans: Inspiring the Plant High football team to a state championship.

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