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2001 could produce breakthrough

Darlee Nelson has his system in place, and Plant might have the talent to make the playoffs.

By ERIC VICIAN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 30, 2001


TAMPA -- You won't find Ozzie, Harriet or even Rick around here, but by all means, the Plant Panthers are the Nelson family.

This is coach Darlee Nelson's fourth year at the school, which means all of the players have been with him since he took over. It also means they should know the system by now.

"They have no choice," Nelson said.

Nelson, who earned his 100th career victory last season, guided Plant to the playoffs in 1999. And after stumbling last season, he has his sights set on returning to the post-season.

With a handful of Division I recruits and players who have been around for a few years, this might be the season Nelson and the Panthers have been waiting for.

"I don't know if it's a breakthrough year or if it's a year where we have confidence in what we're doing," Nelson said. "The system is in place. The philosophy is intact. The kids like what they're doing.

"If it's a breakthrough year, it will be because of those intangibles. It won't be because of anything magical or mystical."

Nelson said the Panthers have a sound work ethic that started this season with a seven-week summer conditioning program. In addition, he said he believes Plant will be an exciting team to watch on Friday nights.

"The kids play the game with integrity," Nelson said. "If people say it's a well-coached team, that will make me more proud than any 'W' I ever see."

OFFENSE: Senior wide receiver Mike Williams is the go-to guy. That's what makes him the biggest recruit on the squad.

"He had a great year last year, and there's no reason why he shouldn't have a great year this year," Nelson said.

The only question is, who will throw him the ball. The Panthers have a pair of true quarterbacks. No more wide receivers-turned-quarterbacks. Juniors Graham Clark and Stephen Reaves have been battling since the spring jamboree.

Clark, who started six games last year, had a "subpar" jamboree, Nelson said, and that left the door open for Reaves.

"I'm looking for one of them to step up and be the man. If not, they'll both be the man," said Nelson who did not rule out a platoon. On the ground, the workhorse once again is Devin Kennedy, who surpassed 1,000 yards rushing last season despite missing two games.

The Panthers have been working on opening holes for Kennedy, and that task will begin with returning starting guards Alex Maldonado and Alex DeCubas. Ryan Brown returns from shoulder surgery as a tackle.

DEFENSE: Of all the "family" Nelson has come to know, perhaps nobody is more closely related than free safety Keron Gordon.

He played his freshman year at Jefferson when Nelson was there and has been at Plant ever since. He was named first-team all-conference after leading the county in interceptions with seven.

The linebackers are a tight crew with Ryan Lab and Barrett Scruggs along with Steve Dosal, who will get his first opportunity to start as a senior.

Nelson said the strength of the defense is the line. Basketball player turned lineman Brad Birrenkott and Andrew "Tex" Watkins join best friends Anthony Ortega and Andrew Deeson, who have been playing beside each other for two years.

"You see one, you see the other. It's a common bond. One's not going to let the other one down," Nelson said. "So I feel good about that combination."

The secondary will consist of Williams, Nick Hill and Dennis Paleveda, who was bothered by a toe injury during preseason.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Loren Shumard returns as the kicker, and soccer player David Williams, who might get some time at running back, will punt.

Look for Gordon to be Nelson's "return special extraordinaire."

PLANT PANTHERS AT A GLANCE

COACH: Darlee Nelson, fourth season (13-18, 103-88 in 19th season overall) ASSISTANTS: Darryl Gordon, Harry Hubbard, Reggie Maddox, Charles McDonald, Michael McWilliams, Albert Smith, Greg Carrington.

COLORS: Black and gold

STADIUM: Dads Stadium, 2415 S Himes Ave., Tampa

CLASS: 4A, District 8

PLAYOFF HISTORY: 1965, 1973, 1976, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1984, 1999

LAST APPEARANCE: Lost to Clearwater 28-3

THE BIG GAME

AUG. 31, HILLSBOROUGH: It doesn't get any older than Plant-Hillsborough, the oldest rivalry in Hillsborough County. The Terriers have dominated this series for the past several years, but the trends tell us that is due to change soon. Either way, it's always a good storyline to have Hillsborough coach Earl Garcia (a Plant graduate) and Plant coach Darlee Nelson (a Hillsborough graduate) face each other.

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