September 11, 2010
TAMPA – Coach Robert Weiner and his Plant Panthers will be deep in the heart of Texas next Thursday night, in Abilene, on ESPN, defending state – and county – pride. “We’re going there to ‘ball out,’ ” James Wilder said. But first came deep in the heart of Hillsborough County. First came the heart of Coach Earl Garcia and his Hillsborough Terriers, who for the better part of Friday evening matched up with Plant. “We played our guts out,” Garcia said. But Plant showed some heart, too, while playing without starting quarterback Phillip Ely, who’s hurting with a lower leg strain.
Then there’s the heart of No. 32. “I knew I needed to do my share,” Wilder said. His share: 196 yards, three touchdowns. Final: Plant 20-13. Did we mention about when he went down? It’s true. With about seven minutes remaining in the second quarter, there came a moment that silenced the crowd at Dad’s Stadium. A season seemed to hang in the balance. There on the brand new Plant playing surface was: James Wilder. Plant’s all everything phenomenon stayed down. It looked like a left knee. Wilder was helped to his feet and barely put weight on it as he was helped off. A few minutes later, Wilder was back in the game. It had only been an ugly gash inflicted by a Hillsborough face mask in the pile.
“He told me, ‘Coach, my bad, I’m sorry,’ ” Weiner said. Then he went in and did his thing. “He knew this was a moment where he had to carry us on his back,” Weiner said.
To start the second half, Wilder was all over the place, carrying the load, before his short touchdown run put Plant up 14-7. Hillsborough came back on a 60-yard touchdown run by Tim Randolph. Wilder put it away late with another score. All of this, and more, marked the Panthers and Terriers christening Plant’s state-of-the-art synthetic playing surface, which cost $600,000 and was completely funded by private donations. “We washed 7 trillion, 304 cars,” Weiner quipped.
Now comes a 1,300-mile trip to Texas to face top-ranked Abilene on ESPN. There’s a chance for redemption, as Weiner’s Panthers were rubbed out by Bradenton Manatee in an exhibition game a few weeks ago on ESPN. The Panthers took a big drop from No. 3 in ESPN’s rankings and were No. 43 Friday. “We got (beat) pretty bad,” Wilder said. “Everybody around here was a little down. Now we get to go to Texas and show them how Florida football works. We get another chance to show what we got.”
Weiner sees the Texas trip as honoring great Hillsborough County teams, past and present. “We wouldn’t be where we are right now without Armwood being really good, without Jefferson, with Earl and Hillsborough being good for as long as they have. A lot of other teams before us kept pushing the envelope,” he said.
Garcia’s bunch had the toughest schedule in the county to start the season – at Jefferson, at Plant. The Terriers found some things to build on, but still find themselves 0-2 this morning. “0-2 is tough to swallow,” Garcia said. Plant hasn’t looked like a national power yet. Maybe the Panthers aren’t. Then again, maybe No. 32 will have something to say about it. There’s deep in Texas’ heart, and there’s deep in his.