Poised Plant prevails

Panthers overcome miscues , deficit to win first football title.

Published December 10, 2006

MIAMI - Against all odds, against all reason, Robert Marve trotted onto the field at Dolphin Stadium on Saturday afternoon and again made magic with his Plant football team.

What the 4,000 witnesses of the Class 4A state final will remember most is tough to figure, but no doubt it starts when Marve took the first snap on the final drive of his stellar high school career: three minutes, two seconds remained, 78 yards were ahead of him, and Plant trailed Ponte Vedra Beach Nease by four.

What followed was a wild ride of Marve running, scrambling, completing quick outs, the clock ticking ... ticking ... ticking ... as Plant crept closer, only to see Marve sacked (once for 11 yards), and fumble (once on Nease's 4), only to have it recovered (by 185-pound Plant center Mike Walsh), then, finally, with 17 seconds left, came the winner: a 4-yard touchdown pass to Derek Winter.

The 2,500 fans on Plant's side sounded like 50,000, because Marve and the Panthers had apparently done what few, if any, believed possible before the season began. They had gone 15-0 and won the state title.

When Winter followed his touchdown by completing a two-point conversion pass on a botched extra point, there seemed no doubt, the scoreboard reading would be the final score, 25-21.

There was, however, one last gasp of terror and one last huge play from Luke Rorech. As Plant's fans celebrated, Nease received the kickoff and began tossing laterals all over the place, and suddenly a green No. 4 jersey streaked down Plant's sideline of white jerseys into the open.

Rorech was the last man between Nease's Graham Bates and a Plant collapse. At Plant's 23, Rorech made the tackle with three seconds left. When the Panthers recorded a sack on the next play, Plant players swarmed the field and many dived into the field, sobbing.

"What a roller-coaster," Winter said. "My, God."

Amid the chaos and tension, Marve described the huddle on the final 12-play drive as "Peaceful. ... We got into a rhythm. We were feeling it, and I was not going to let our team lose because of me. There was no way I was going to let that happen."

Which might sound odd, considering Marve threw interceptions on two previous possessions, the last leading to Nease's final TD, which capped a seven-play, 41-yard drive and comeback from a 17-0 first-half deficit.

"I thought we had taken the momentum back, but when you have a guy like Robert Marve who you're going against, you're crazy if you get comfortable," Nease coach Craig Howard said. "We were doing everything we could to stop him, but he made the plays. Last year, we had our magical leader in Tim Tebow (who led Nease to the state title). This year, Plant has magical Robert Marve."

When Marve threw his second touchdown, a 1-yarder to Cornelius Gallon midway through the second quarter, he broke Tebow's state record of 46 touchdown passes in a season. When Marve finished with 29 completions on 44 attempts for 276 yards and three touchdowns, he had set the single-season marks for yardage (4,343, eclipsing Tebow), touchdowns (48) and completions (278).

He also, perhaps, had improved more than any quarterback from a junior to a senior season, a fact coach Robert Weiner said, "goes back to him being the hardest-working player in the history of high school football."

That's also why, Weiner said, Marve and he were so calm during the final drive.

"We've worked that two-minute drill a million times, so we were ready to do it," Weiner said. "Before the drive, I just told Robert, 'Okay, now let's do what we do.' When he ran onto the field, he looked back at me and said, 'Coach, I won't let you down.' "

In the end, after hugging every teammate he could find - Chris Kuzdale (who had two circus-act interceptions) and Winter (13 catches, 114 yards), and Thompson Brandes (seven catches, 77 yards) and Gallon (seven catches, 55 yards) - he hugged his coach a long, long time.

In the three years since Weiner took over Plant, he and Marve had gone 3-7, 9-3 and 15-0 - facts that did not seem lost on the crowd, who behind them cheered themselves into a frenzy.

When the coach and quarterback released the embrace, Marve raised his arms to the black-and-gold-clad fans, who chanted the young man's name.

"Robert Marve! Robert Marve! Robert Marve!"