And the dream season ends for Plant at the hands of Apopka

If you had told Plant head coach Robert Weiner before Plant’s 8A State Semifinal match-up with defending 8A State Champion Apopka that his starting quarterback, Colby Brown, would throw for close to 350 yards and 4 touchdowns, he probably would have liked his chances. But if you also told him that visitors from just outside Orlando would run its famed single wing offense almost to perfection and end up with close to 450 rushing yards, including three players who rushed for over 100 yards, he might have had second thoughts. And if you told him that the Blue Darters would pick off three of Brown’s passes in the second half, and return one of them for a touchdown, Coach Weiner would have known that he and his Panthers were in trouble. And he would have been right. And when all of these things happened at Dad’s Stadium Friday night, the end result would be a disappointing, season-ending loss for the Panthers, who fell to Apopka by a final score of 45-29, ending Plant’s season and its 21-game home playoff win streak.

The Panthers — and Brown in particular — came out hot on the opening drive. Brown connected on his first six passes, hitting five different receivers, as Plant took it from its own 31 to the Apopka 29 before the drive stalled. And sensing that his Panthers would need touchdowns, and not field goals, Weiner went for it on fourth down, only to come up short. Apopka responded with a 72-yard drive that featured one short pass and 13 runs. Robert Thomas picked up his first of two rushing TD’s when he darted in from five yards out for the first touchdown of the evening. L’Heureux’s extra point was good and the Blue Darters took an early 7-0 lead.

Plant’s next drive started with promise as junior Patrick Brooks strung together two quick runs for 30 yards. A holding call against the Panthers put them in a hole they could not dig their way out of and they were forced to punt. Taking over on their own 29, Apopka put together their second scoring drive in as many possessions, keyed by the Blue Darters’ only other pass completion of night — this a 12 yard, thread-the-needle completion from Apopka quarterback Chandler Cox to Jacob Wittrock on a 4th-and-11 play. Cox picked up the final 12 yards on the ground to put the Darters up 14-0.

After punting on their next possession, Plant came up with its first stop of the night. Plant then used up most of the remaining time in the first half to drive the ball 73 yards, the final ten coming in the form of a touchdown pass from Brown to classmate Alex Jackson. Going into the locker room for half time, the Panthers had cut the lead in half,14-7, and the raucous crowd was back in the game.

Apopka started out the second half with the ball and good field position. They moved into Plant territory before settling on a 28 yard field goal attempt from L’Heureux that barely cleared the crossbar. Down 17-7, Plant began its opening drive of the second half from its own 32 yard line. On its third play of the drive, Brown’s scramble picked up yardage, but was costly as Brown’s fumble was recovered by Thomas, one of a few Darters that saw action on both sides of the ball. Apopka took advantage of the short field to set up a 1-yard touchdown run from Thomas to give the Darters a 24-7 edge. Thomas finished the night with 125 yards on 18 carries to go along with his two TD’s.

Plant showed the resiliency that got them to the semifinal game on its next drive. Brown followed up two Jackson runs, with a 55 yard scoring strike to senior Cam Winter, who had his best night of the season statistically. More importantly, the Panthers were back in the game once again, down 24-14.

Apopka went 81 yards, twice actually, on its following possession to stretch the lead back to 17 points. This time, it was J.J. Simmons who took it in from 22 yards out. Simmons finished the night with 130 yards of his own on only 14 carries.

Plant got the ball back and Brown went to work again, hitting Fletcher Barnes for 8 yards, Jordan Reed for 10, Winter for 28, Jackson for 7 and Brooks for 11, before connecting with Jackson on a 12-yard TD pass. With 8:30 remaining in the game, one had the feeling that the Plant playoff magic was waiting in the wings. In an effort to keep the ball out of Darter hands, the Panthers attempted an unsuccessful on-side kick. A strongly debated penalty put the Blue Darters in business at the Plant 32 yard line, which is exactly how far Simmons ran on the first play of the drive for his second touchdown of the night. Apopka now led 38-21, but the complexion of the game had changed. Plant was moving the ball, especially through the air. And it was through the air that Plant started its next drive. A 22-yard pass to Jackson, followed by a 19-yard strike to Winter turned the field around and gave the Panthers a first down on the Darter 30. On the next play, however, Simmons settled under an under-thrown pass for the interception.

Two plays later, Plant linebacker Jackson Kilcoyne forced a fumble that was recovered by the Panthers on Apopka’s 11 yard line. Again, it appeared that there was still time for some Plant magic. But after a sack, Brown misfired on his next attempt and Thomas picked it off. Plant’s defense was able to hold, forcing a Darter punt and keeping Plant hopes alive. The Darter in the heart came a few plays later when defensive lineman Eric Jackson picked off a Plant screen pass and rambled 25 yards for a touchdown, and a 45-21 advantage, that essentially sealed the win for Apopka.

Refusing to go away quietly, Plant made one final stab at pulling a rabbit out of the hat. A 23-yard run from Brooks, and a pair of 8-yard completions to Reed, set up a 21 catch-and-run Brown-to-Jackson touchdown connection. Brown then hit Reed for the two point conversion to make the final score a more respectable 45-29.

In addition to Thomas and Simmons, Apopka junior Chandler Cox bullied his way for 180 yards on 23 carries, picking up critical drive-saving first downs throughout the night. Apopka looks to defend its 8A title when it faces Miami South Dade, a 37-10 winner over Palm Beach Gardens, next Saturday night in Orlando. Plant suffered only its second loss of the season, but managed to reach the State Semifinals for the sixth time in the last eight years. But, unfortunately, the magic ended a little too soon for the Panthers.

– Robert Barnes