EAST LAKE — This was a game few thought Plant High School could lose. The Panthers, a program steeped in playoff tradition with two state football titles the past three years, was playing East Lake in the Class 8A region final.
The Eagles were playing in the postseason’s third round for the first time. Plant was too experienced, the experts said. Too explosive. Too much. The Panthers were favored by 28 points in one computer projection, the largest margin of any playoff game regardless of classification.
The prognostications were correct, but Friday’s game turned out to be anything but a blowout. Plant trailed most of the game and needed a touchdown to tie with 28 seconds remaining in regulation before winning in overtime 28-21.
The Panthers (12-1) will host Neptune Beach Fletcher in the state semifinals.
“We had been humming along in the playoffs, but I had to put in the kids’ heads that this wasn’t going to be easy,” Plant coach Robert Weiner said. “East Lake was physical and brought it on every play. There was so much character on both sides tonight. And really, to be honest, East Lake deserved to win as we did.”
For 45 minutes, the Eagles (9-4) ignored the predictions and kept the Panthers in check. From Tyler Lane getting the tough yards on the ground, to gutsy quarterback Pete DiNovo completing passes at pivotal moments, to the defense playing without fear, East Lake acted as if this was a pressureless contest.
The Panthers, who had scored more than 50 points in each of their first two playoff games, resorted to trickery to take their first lead as Aaron Banks took a handoff on a reverse and lofted a 56-yard TD pass to Austin Roberts. The extra point was blocked as Plant led 6-0 in the first..
In the second quarter, the Eagles found their rhythm on offense and scored on a 2-yard touchdown run by Tyler Lane. Sebastian Gonzalez’s extra point gave East Lake a 7-0 lead.
East Lake scored again on a 45-yard pass from DiNovo to Artavis Scott, who eluded a defender to race down the sideline for a touchdown. That made it 14-6 Eagles at the half.
Plant responded, capitalizing on a fumble and converting it into points as Wesley Bullock scored on a 2-yard touchdown run. Banks threw to quarterback James Few on a 2-point tie 14-all.
The Panthers appeared as if they would break the game open in the fourth quarter with a drive that reached East Lake 2. But the Eagles recovered a fumble and went on a methodical drive that was capped by Lane’s second touchdown on a 2-yard run. East Lake led 21-14. Plant countered with a drive past midfield. But on fourth down, Few was picked off by Devin Abraham with 3:31 remaining in regulation.
The Eagles appeared to have run for a first down that helped kill the clock, but a holding penalty eventually forced them to punt. With less than a minute left, Few completed three key passes, the last an 8-yard touchdown pass to Dereck Mann with 28 seconds left to force overtime.
“East Lake was ready to play and we weren’t,” Few said. “This was a great atmosphere to play in. We had a huge fight on our hands and had to regroup in the second half. We felt like we were getting killed, but were only down by one score.”
Plant took the lead in overtime on a 10-yard run by Bullock. The Panthers sealed the win by stopping the Eagles on downs.
Afterward, East Lake coach Bob Hudson stood in a corridor of the locker room, and, after a long pause, walked out to talk to the media. Hudson thought about it for a moment, but no matter how much he replayed the ending in his head, it was not going to change the outcome.
“We were supposed to have the biggest loss in the state,” Hudson said. “But we had them and gave everyone their money’s worth. I’m so proud of these players, seniors and coaches.”