This week, the Times' preps staff reflects on the best high school sporting event each writer covered in the 2009-10 school year.
Football, Sept. 4: Tampa Bay Tech 32, Plant 30
From a pure entertainment perspective, I had never experienced a more breathtaking dawn to a prep sports year than the one that broke over Dads Stadium on a surreal South Tampa evening.
How could I have known the first regular-season sporting event I would cover all year also would be the best? It began with Tony Dungy - normally as punctual as a church bell - arriving only minutes before kickoff to tape a pre-arranged Friday NightRewind segment.
It ended with Tampa Bay Tech also waiting until the 11th hour to show up.
The Titans, poised on paper for the best season in school history, appeared to have a real shot at stealing one from the defending Class 4A state champs. This was Year 3 of the C.C. Culpepper coaching era, the year he had promised anyone listening that the Titans would win a state title.
The Titans were vicious and physical on defense, while burly University of Miami-bound tailback Maurice Hagens served as the offensive cornerstone. The Panthers, by contrast, were missing several injured starters, including quarterback Phillip Ely, and had lost to Bradenton Manatee by 16 in a preseason game the previous week.
But at halftime, Plant led 8-0, and no one watching seemed to be overwhelmed by anything except the humidity.
With Ely hurt, the Panthers kept their offense conservative and tried to exploit TBT miscues, which included four false starts in the first half.
When Allen Sampson returned a free kick for a touchdown, after an errant long snap by TBT sailed into the Titans' end zone, Plant had a 24-0 lead five minutes into the second half. Then, the most bizarre 16 minutes of the local prep football season unfolded, punctuated by crucial blunders and palpable ebb and flow.
An errant pitch-out by Plant emergency quarterback James Few was scooped up by D'Robea Jones and returned 20 yards for a touchdown with 3:52 to go in the third. A blocked punt by TBT's Josh Smith followed, setting up Hagens' 10-yard scoring run and TBT's second straight two-point conversion to make it 24-16.
But no sooner had the Titans' pulse returned than Sampson went Kevorkian on them, returning the following kickoff 95 yards to put Plant back ahead 30-16. At that point, it seemed academic. The Panthers had a two-touchdown lead. In the fourth quarter. In their house. Time to start formulating the game story in my mind.
Or so I assumed.
Sampson was still getting back slaps when burly Titans linebacker Sam Jones returned the following kickoff inside Plant's 5-yard line. Cludner Lacount's 4-yard touchdown run, followed by C.J. Jackson's Tebow-style chest pass to Tim Stewart on the two-point try, made it 30-24.
As if chaos weren't enough at that point, controversy surfaced. On the next play from scrimmage, Panthers senior Deandre Queen fumbled near his 30, though still photos clearly showed his knee had first hit the ground.
The very next play, TBT quarterback Jonathon Williams - who had completed one pass to that point - found Lacount isolated over the middle for a 30-yard touchdown with 6:25 to play. Jackson then heaved another one-handed chest pass to Donta Evans to give TBT the lead for good.
Afterward, Culpepper, drenched with ice water and emotion, spoke of setting a tone for a state title run while vowing to dismiss his special teams coach (himself).
Minutes later, I sat in my pickup, laptop wedged between my waist and steering wheel, typing with shaking fingers. This is the rush a journalist feels; your heart pounds as you scurry to convey an incredible event you've just witnessed or some stunning news you've just received. You want to share it with the world - and fast.
I don't recall shaking like that for any other story I wrote all year.
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Other contest-of-the-year candidates
More games that almost made the final cut for Joey Knight
1. Plant City 50, Durant 49 (boys basketball): Raiders rally from 12-point deficit in final four minutes.
2. Sickles 73, Newsome 72, OT (boys basketball): With no time on clock, Gryphons senior Eric "Moose" Taris hits second of two free throws to force overtime in this Berkeley Basketball Invitational thriller.
3. Plant City 27, Durant 24 (football): Raiders lose 19-point halftime lead, but rally on Daz'mond Patterson's 1-yard TD and ensuing two-point conversion with 49 seconds to play.