Cougars, Raiders renew annual gridiron clash
Plant City's football team has shoved thorns in Durant's side the past three seasons — and the Cougars are pretty irritated about it. "We can't wait for the chance to get back at (Plant City)," said Durant Coach Mike Gottman, in his 10th year with the Cougars. "Games like this — rivalries like this — is why we do what we do. "The stands are going to be packed. It's going to be awesome." It is obvious Gottman is a little more fired up this year, for a couple of glaring reasons: He remembers the Cougars' losing scores from the last three years of the rivalry — 43-12, 27-21 and 27-24 — and this year, he potentially has one of the best Cougar teams ever.It also doesn't hurt that this is what many expect to be the season's key Class 7A, District 8 game. Both Plant City and Durant come into the contest with 1-0 district records. Durant, which started the season 3-0 by outscoring opponents by a combined 122-7, is led by a couple of running backs, senior Jamarlon Hamilton and sophomore Crispian Atkins, each of whom averaged more than 100 yards and eight yards a carry in those first three games. The Cougars also feature a solid quarterback in Trey Van De Grift, a stout offensive line and a defense with a relentless, high-powered motor. "They never give up," Plant City coach Wayne Ward said of Durant's defense. "It's what we expect." The Raiders (3-1, 1-0) counter with a defense that has bent a little but never really has broken. Plant City hasn't given up more than 21 points in a game and those 21 were against the high-octane offense of Gaither, which lost to the Raiders 23-21. "That was a big win for us (against Gaither in week 3), no doubt," Ward said. "It helped prove what we're capable of doing if we put it all together." Part of the Raiders' excitement begins with the solid play of its quarterback, senior Nick Rodriguez, who replaced major Division I college recruit Bennie Coney, who is in his freshman season at the University of Cincinnati. Rodriguez, who took off last football season to concentrate on baseball, has completed 38 of 72 passes for 609 yards, including more than 200 yards in each of his past two games. "I'd say (Rodriguez) has done an outstanding job leading this team," Ward said. "We needed him to step up and he has." The other big Raider story this season is the breakout of freshman back Ervin Micheal, who is averaging 106 rushing yards a game, including 193 in the season opener against Strawberry Crest. "That's the thing about Plant City; they always, always, always have talent," Gottman said. "You can never, ever, take them for granted. Ever."