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Panther power

Fans are discussing South Tampa's hottest topic over lattes at Starbucks, over beers at Tapper's Pub, over steaks - okay, steakburgers - and shakes at Steak n Shake.

But the point is the same: South Tampa is wild about Plant High football.

"If you went to Plant, you have plenty to be proud of," said Lisa Andersen, a 1980 graduate, Monday at Steak * Shake.

"But in Florida, football's a whole other ball of wax. Some people don't care how many kids you graduate as long as you win a football title."

Plant's football team has the opportunity to do exactly that Saturday afternoon at Miami's Dolphin Stadium. The Panthers play the Ponte Vedra Beach Nease at 1 p.m. in the Class 4A state championship game.

The Panthers earned that opportunity by going 14-0 this season. When thousands of fans packed Dad's Stadium last week to watch Plant defeat Miami's Booker T. Washington High 20-15 in a 4A state semifinal, the student section was packed so tight some had trouble breathing.

A Times reporter sardined into the student section with her son said the students around her, all standing, turned sideways so they could fit into the stands. The scene was so snug, she said, she could feel the cell phone vibrating in a neighboring fan's pocket.

Now those are some close fans.

Those who couldn't fit in the stands Friday stood along a fence separating them from the football field.

Hundreds of others saved their cash by watching the game through a fence from outside the school grounds, many perched on pickup truck beds and trailers.

Just because they didn't hand over $7 for tickets, Carmen Scott said last week during the semifinal, they're no less Panthers fans.

"Plus, it's better over here," said Scott, 36, cracking open a can of Milwaukee's Best from a 12-pack on the hood of her Honda Civic. "They don't sell these inside."

Scott and her husband, John, 33, didn't attend Plant. But they live nearby in Sun Bay South and had a nephew on the team a few years ago. They've been watching Plant football, John said, "since it was bad."

"Bad" might be a little harsh, but only two seasons ago, the program was not competitive. It went through a dozen years without a winning record before coach Bob Weiner led the team to 9-3 last season.

After going 3-7 in Weiner's first term, Plant has posted a 23-3 record. That's remarkable in an extremely strong football county in an extremely strong football state.

There are stars certainly, particularly quarterback Robert Marve, who has passed for more than 4,000 yards and 45 touchdowns. (The state record is 46.)

Derek Winter and Luke Rorech regularly make big plays as receivers and as defensive backs. And Chris Kuzdale has been picking off opposing quarterbacks with such intuition it's like he's channeling Miss Cleo.

But the banner atop Dad's Stadium doesn't read "Plant Football - One Heartbeat" for nothing.

Player by player, Washington was as skilled as Plant last week, maybe more so.

But the Tornadoes often shot themselves in the foot with sloppy mistakes and dumb penalties. Plant played good, solid team ball, looking disciplined, focused and ready.

And everyone's noticed. Business marquees up and down S Dale Mabry Highway sing the Panthers' praises. The Press Box sports pub promotes the television feed of Saturday's title game on its sign. Expect a crowd.

"This is football country," said Don Stander, 46, talking while keeping his eyes glued to a TV showing Monday Night Football this week at Press Box.

"These aren't the biggest, most athletic kids in the world, but they're really well-coached and they play as a team," said Stander, a housing contractor who watched four of Plant's wins this year.

"They have a lot of heart and they play their asses off."

It was pointed out to Stander that those are about the biggest cliches you can use about a football team.

"They're cliches 'cause they're true," he said. "Ain't nothin' wrong with that."

Times staff writer Elisabeth Dyer contributed to this report. Rick Gershman can be reached at rgershman@sptimes.com or 226-3431.

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