TAMPA — The story of Plant High football this season was supposed to be about a return on an investment.
Would-be starting quarterback Rex Culpepper, a Syracuse commit, had spent a year starting under center, learning the offense and taking the occasional lumps. And though his performance wasn't bad — Plant finished 11-2 in 2014, losing to Orlando Dr. Phillips in the second round of the playoffs — there was always the hope of next season, when he'd return to the field a bigger, better version of himself.
That hope was dashed on July 18, when Culpepper tore his ACL in a 7-on-7 tournament at USF, forcing the Panthers to find Plan B.
And though that plan has yet to be officially named — coach Robert Weiner is still unsure whether the starting quarterback will be Dane Frantzen, Judge Culpepper or Kyle Trina — the Panthers will likely be the team to beat in Tampa Bay this season.
After all, this kind of thing has happened to the Panthers before.
In October 2008, in the middle of his senior season, current NFL quarterback Aaron Murray broke his fibula and missed the next seven games, coming back to lead Plant to state semifinal and championship wins.
In the meantime, sophomore Phillip Ely stepped in where Murray left off, winning all seven games he started.
And though that tale could serve as reassurance for Trina, Frantzen or Judge Culpepper should they be tapped to step in, Weiner wants it to be a lesson not just for his potential quarterback, but for his whole team.
"Part of making up for that void a little bit on a daily basis is not just the three quarterbacks," Weiner said. "How do you respond to an injury as devastating as the one Rex had? You respond by your whole team stepping up, and that is emotionally, that's mentally and that's physically as well. And our team has really done a great job of that."
That said, the Panthers don't have an easy road on which to find their footing.
As he's done each of the past two years, Weiner scheduled Plant's season opener against a top, out-of-state opponent. This season it's Colquitt County (Ga.), last year's Class 6A Georgia state champion. It's been 21 months since the Packers lost a football game.
The schedule and task of finding a new quarterback will both be tough, but Weiner is confident about the team he has and its ability to handle those challenges. Anchored by West Point commit Joe Ryan, the linebacking corps is something the veteran coach is excited about. And at the skill positions, wide receiver Juwan Burgess and defensive back Scoop Bradshaw should be something to see.
And while the Panthers like being thought of as the best, they also know it's likely to make their campaign that munch harder.
"That's the first thing you learn, playing for Plant. Is that everyone, when they come out to the field at Plant, you're getting their best," Ryan said. "So that means we have to be at our best, every single game."