High school football playoffs
TAMPA — The odds were already stacked against Plant High entering last week's playoff football game. The Panthers were on the road against a Viera team that was ranked ninth overall in the state by MaxPreps.
The chances of winning became more bleak in the waning minutes. Viera had the lead and the ball with 2:44 remaining.
But these are the situations in which Plant thrives. The defense held. The offense drove 91 yards — 15 coming on a personal foul penalty against the public address announcer for blaring music when the Panthers had the ball.
The game — and the season — came down to one play. Plant had the ball at the 1-yard line with 12 seconds left and no timeouts. There was time to throw the ball once, maybe kick a tying field goal if that did not work.
Panthers coach Robert Weiner elected to run instead. Once Micah McFadden took the handoff, his legs were wrapped up by a defender. He was carried into the end zone by a heftier rather than higher power. Plant lineman Will Putnam, a 6-foot-4, 280-pound junior, threw his arms around McFadden and carried him across the goal line, capping off an improbable 22-18 victory in the Class 7A region semifinals.
The dramatic comeback left a stunned home crowd in disbelief.
For the Panthers, the outcome was never in doubt.
"There was no time this past week where we thought we were going to lose," Weiner said.
"I really think more than anything else it is a foundational building of a culture of winning. And we've shown it time and time and time again.
"We kept saying that this past one was one of the five best miracle games that we've ever played. Then I started going through the list and I was able to come up with about 14 of them."
Since 2005, Plant is 24-5 in games decided by seven points or fewer.
It is more than just winning close games. The Panthers have made a habit of doing it with last-minute panache, especially in the playoffs.
Take last year's region semifinals. Plant blocked a punt in the final minute to set up a go-ahead touchdown to beat Lakeland, the team the Panthers face in tonight's region final. In 2013, Plant converted a third and 15 from its own 3-yard line on a tipped pass to set up the tying score, then stopped a two-point conversion in overtime in a win over Orlando Dr. Phillips.
So how are the Panthers able to continuously prevail in such dire situations?
Weiner insists it is anything but supernatural.
"It's more than just a momentary thing," Weiner said. "There's a real palpable sense that we're going to win. I don't know how we're going to get there, but we're going to win."
True to his methodical nature, Weiner anticipates just about every situation. Every week, the Panthers go through a two-minute drill in practice. In the second half of the season, they simulate all kinds of situations that can come up in a game.
Where other teams might panic or be overcome by a sense of doom in those pulse-tweaking moments, Plant almost always operates with a sense of calm and firm belief that the game will turn in its favor.
"It's just an environment here," McFadden said. "It's almost a knowledge that we're not going to lose."
McFadden knows the history. The Indiana recruit has been attending Plant games since he was in fourth grade. He was in the stands when the Panthers pulled out that overtime win against Dr. Phillips.
Now he is a part of that history.
"Some teams believe that they can win in those situations," Weiner said. "But that's not knowing. We know that it's going to happen at that time. It's certainly not a cockiness. It's not even a spoken thing. It's just something that's deeply ingrained in all of us.
"It is what we are."
Five of Plant's most memorable playoff victories:
2006 Plant 25, Ponte Vedra Nease 21: In the Class 4A state title game, the Panthers trailed 21-17 in the final three minutes when quarterback Robert Marve (now an assistant coach) engineered a winning drive. The outcome was not decided until Luke Rorech made a game-saving tackle on the final kickoff to secure Plant's first state title.
2011 Plant 28, East Lake 21 (OT): Trailing 21-14 with 3:31 left in regulation, the Panthers benefitted from a holding call that helped them stop East Lake from running out the clock. With less than a minute left, quarterback James Few completed three key passes, the last for a touchdown to send the game into overtime. Plant went on to its fourth state title in five seasons.
2013 Plant 24, Orlando Dr. Phillips 23 (OT): With Plant down 17-10 and facing third and 15 at its 3-yard line, the Panthers' Colby Brown hit Fletcher Barnes on a 55-yard pass that was initially tipped. That play with less than three minutes left in regulation set up the tying touchdown. Plant stopped a two-point conversion in overtime to win the region semifinal game.
2016 Plant 25, Lakeland 21: The Panthers had blocked only one kick last season when Clay Hancher knifed through to block a punt against the Dreadnaughts in the final minute of regulation. That set up the go-ahead touchdown and a region semifinal win.
2017 Plant 22, Viera 18: Facing the Knights in the playoffs for the second time in as many years, the Panthers drove 92 yards in the final three minutes to win in the region semifinals.
All games 7:30 tonight; admission $8
No. 3 Plant (11-1) at No. 1 Lakeland (10-0)
No. 2 Tampa Bay Tech (11-1) at No. 1 Venice (11-1)
No. 3 Ocala Vanguard (11-0) at No. 1 Armwood (12-0)
No. 2 Lakewood (9-1) at No. 1 Immokalee (11-0)
All games 7:30 tonight; admission $9
No. 1 Hollywood Chaminade Madonna (9-2) at No. 1 Clearwater Central Catholic (11-0)
No. 2 Hialeah Champagnat (7-2) at No. 1 Cambridge Christian (9-2)