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An 88-second ride of a lifetime

At some point during Plant's surreal state championship run, the phrase "one heartbeat" was embraced as the Panthers' unofficial team mantra.

But for most of the final 88 seconds of Saturday's Class 4A title game, that heartbeat must have seemed irregular to any Panthers fan gasping for oxygen.

A fumble and a high snap, accompanied by a 64-yard Nease kickoff return, threatened to foil Plant's breathtaking rally and transform exhilaration into excruciation. But as they have done throughout this season of dominance and destiny, the Panthers made some big plays.

"Big-time players make big-time plays," said senior strong safety Chris Kuzdale, who converted a big play of his own when he recovered a fumble on the kickoff of Plant's winning drive.

In the waning moments of Saturday's 25-21 triumph, the big-timers were 180-pound center Mike Walsh, three-way junior Derek Winter and fleet senior Luke Rorech.

The improbable sequence began with Walsh, who fell on a Robert Marve fumble inside Nease's 5 on third and 2 during the winning touchdown drive.

"(Marve) got hit," said Walsh, his lower lip bloodied after getting a mouthful of shoulder pads during a postgame hug. "I saw the ball lay on the ground and just dove on it."

Ironically, the play gave the Panthers a first down at the Nease 4. Two plays later, Marve hit Winter for a 4-yard touchdown with 17 seconds to play.

"We may be the only team in the history of the state championships with a 180-pound center, but he's got a 500-pound heart," coach Bob Weiner said.

"The kid's never missed a day, never missed a workout, never missed anything. He deserves to be the guy who made a play that changed the game."

His second play also changed things, albeit indirectly. Walsh's high snap on the ensuing PAT forced Winter, the holder, to scramble and make a wobbly throw in the left flat to sophomore fullback Chris Hesson, who rambled into the end zone.

"(Winter) really saved me on that one," Walsh said.

The play, which gave Plant a four-point lead, ultimately proved the difference. Had the improvised pass failed, Nease could have attempted to tie it on what would have been a 40-yard field goal after its 64-yard return on the ensuing kickoff.

The high snap "happened once before in the Armwood game," said Winter, who couldn't convert against the Hawks.

"It was a high snap. I knew I couldn't get it down; I had to stand straight up. I rolled out, and (the Armwood game) went through my mind. I knew I had to put a little more air under it and he'd catch it and get it in."

Rorech had to put a bit more air under his feet on the Nease kick return.

The 155-pound senior was on backside pursuit when Nease quarterback Ted Stachitas fielded the squib kick and ultimately pitched it to Graham Bates, who raced down the Plant sideline before Rorech crossed the length of the field to make the tackle.

"There was no way in hell he was gonna score," Rorech said. "No way."