Continuity throughout the PCHS program could spell success for 2018.
A good way to describe the Plant City Raiders of the last four years was, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This year, though, that’s not the case.
Plant City did not change head coaches after the 2017 season, much to the delight of the school, fans and returning players and coaches. James Booth brings continuity to a position that’s needed it most with three changes in as many years, essentially the entire time the team’s four-year seniors have been enrolled at PCHS.
“I think year two’s expectations are still the same,” Booth said. “We want to win the district championship, we want to go to the playoffs and see where the chips roll and make it to state. That’s the expectations every year. But we have a standard of practice that these guys have to come and commit themselves to every day. I think they’re starting to understand that.”
Considering how 2017 played out, more time with Booth’s philosophies seems like a good look. The Raiders’ overall record didn’t set the local football world on fire, but there were signs something was brewing at 1 Raider Place. Coming to PCHS from Strawberry Crest, Braxton Plunk morphed into a completely different quarterback and threw 20 touchdown passes and well over 2,000 yards, not to mention his five rushing touchdowns. Sophomore running backs Eric Wilson and Zamir’ Knighten each averaged more than five yards per carry and the team found a big-play receiver in the speedy Mario Williams. D.J. Gordon IV cemented his status as one of the county’s elite defensive players and Ashton Mincey and Amir Abdullah rounded out the team’s trio of athletic, productive linebackers. Tyreke Harrison showed he can play all over the field. The team only won four games, but it had those flashes.
“We had games when we were right in it,” Booth said. “We were in it with Jefferson and Hillsborough, right there. If we win those games, and we lost to Bloomingdale by a touchdown with 50 seconds left, we’re a couple games away from having a really great season in year one. Going back now, I think we have guys that have experience and know how to close games out, how to finish it, how to finish drives.”
Now that most of those guys are coming back and Booth’s sticking to his guns, the Raiders are a team to watch out for in 2018.
“I think we’ve got a lot of experience. A lot of returning starters, guys that have been there,” Booth said. “Expectations are high.”
The offense took a few hits in the offseason with the graduation of wideout Tyler Hood and Eric Wilson’s transfer. In both cases, the Raiders aren’t worried about replacing them: wideout Chris Wilson and Knighten will have expanded roles this year and Booth is pleased with both players’ progress. Wilson caught 17 balls for 280 yards and two scores last year. Knighten gained 394 yards on 63 carries and scored once in 2017. Gordon and Harrison, primarily defensive players, will also get some snaps at running back as well as Ezion Reaves and Mike Turner, but Booth made it clear Knighten is going to be the Raiders’ new lead back. The group of running backs is fairly young, but talented.
“We’re trying to teach these guys and get them caught up as best as we can,” Booth said.
In particular, Booth expects a big year from Plunk. The senior, he said, has improved his decision-making and placement in the offseason. With Williams and Chris Wilson coming off of productive offseasons themselves, plus Knighten’s pass-catching ability, Plant City is likely to rely heavily on Plunk’s arm.
Kickoff and punt return duties will be split between Harrison and Williams, which makes Plant City’s special teams unit a consistent threat to score. Harrison’s speed is track-tested (he was a member of the 4x100 relay team that made it to the FHSAA state championships) and Williams has proven adept at burning would-be tacklers and swiping bases on the baseball diamond.
As always, Plant City is going to be strong at the linebacker position. Gordon and Mincey — who is returning from a torn ACL — are back together again and will be joined by former defensive back Kobe Panier. The Raiders are switching to a three-man front on defense and will rely more on defensive linemen Emmanuel Baez, who picked up the game last season, and Brodie Richards. Harrison and track teammate A.J. Joyce will lead the secondary and their athleticism should come in handy.
“I’m very happy with where our defense is at right now,” Booth said.
With the same schedule as last season — besides that the locations changed, of course — the Raiders are hoping to make up for those close losses they took in 2017. What’s most intriguing about the schedule is the end: three of the Raiders’ last four games will be played at home and all four opponents (Armwood, Durant, Bloomingdale and Tampa Bay Tech) will net the Raiders bonus points in the new playoff system.Will they get the extra 12 points with four wins? Maybe not, but this group is confident it has what it takes to catch some teams by surprise in 2018.
“I think we can really make some noise this year,” Booth said.
THREE TO SEE
Braxton Plunk (QB, Sr.)
Last year was a totally new situation for you and you made the most of it. Going into this year, how have things changed?
Definitely feel more comfortable with the offense and what coach Booth wants. Just holding the team accountable. I’m more comfortable overall with the team and the playbook, also.
What did you learn from last year about leadership?
Like I said, just to hold people accountable and make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing, when they’re supposed to be doing it and stuff like that.
You looked comfortable in the new offense last year. What do you like about playing in it?
Just the speed and the tempo. We’re fast-paced, we’re always going. We’re running and we kind of tire people down.
At the end of the season, what would it take for you to feel like it was a success?
Winning districts, going deep in the playoffs. That’s our team goal. I don’t know if we’re really focused on individual stuff right now. We just want to win districts and go deep in the playoffs.
Emmanuel Baez (DE, Jr.)
You were new to football last year. What did you learn from the varsity experience?
I learned that I’ve got to listen to my coaches on everything, more so like on techniques and that type of stuff. They taught me a lot more than I already knew and that I can’t just focus fully on athleticism.
What’s the biggest thing you learned from last year that will help you this year?
Relying on my hands coming off the line. And playing more of a leadership role. We’ve got athleticism on the team but we’re not gonna be able to go far if we can’t stick together as a group.
What makes you a good player?
My quickness. And I can use a lot of hand techniques now.
What are your expectations for yourself and for the team this season?
For myself, I want to have 15 sacks and 30 tackles for loss. For the team, I want to go undefeated, win districts and go deep into the playoffs.
D.J. Gordon IV (LB, Sr.)
This is gonna be a big year for you. What are your expectations for your last year?
Holding my teammates accountable for their responsibilities, doing what we have to do as a team, as a whole. Making sure everybody’s got everything together in school and out of school. We’re making sure we do the best that we can.
Coach Booth told me you came into the offseason with a new attitude and outlook on leadership. What changed for you?
Seeing things change at the college level, how they do things. Coaches talking to me about how I should be, what I should be for my team and making my team the best I can while I’m here.
What do you consider your greatest strengths on the field?
Speed coming downhill, coverage, being a vocal leader. Telling everybody what they have to do.
Note: All games scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m. District games marked with *.
8/24: @ Jefferson
8/31: @ Hillsborough
9/7: vs. Wharton
9/14: vs. Lennard*
9/21: @ East Bay*
9/28: @ Strawberry Crest* (Farmageddon)
10/5: vs. Armwood
10/12: @ Durant* (Battle for the Redman Cup)
10/19: vs. Bloomingdale*
10/26: vs. Tampa Bay Tech*
Location: 1 Raider Place, Plant City
Head Coach: James Booth (2nd season with team)
2017 Record: 4-6 (3-3 district)
2 Demario Williams SB, WR So.
3 Zamir' Knighten RB Jr.
4 Tyreke Harrison FS, CB, RB Sr.
5 Chris Wilson WR Sr.
6 Kobe Panier ILB Sr.
7 Ashton Mincey MLB Sr.
8 James Gordon IV ILB, OLB, WR Sr.
9 Braxton Plunk QB Sr.
10 Demije Hollins OLB, SS Sr.
11 Antron Robinson CB, SS Jr.
13 Maurice Morris WR Sr.
14 Jaquez Green CB, FS Sr.
15 Reagan Ealy WR So.
16 Eric McLeod WR Jr.
20 Antwain Joyce Jr. CB, SS Sr.
21 Austin Albright CB So.
22 Ezion Reaves RB Fr.
24 Jaylen Malcolm CB Sr.
25 Aaron Risdon SB, WR Jr.
28 Shermonte Hargrove SS Jr.
29 Javen Clarke SS, OLB Jr.
30 Emmanuel Baez DE Jr.
32 D.J. Littles CB, FS So.
36 Mike Turner RB So.
38 Chris Rodriguez P Jr.
40 Eduardo Alfaro K Sr.
42 Jackson Knotts LS So.
44 Keyshawn Green DL, ILB Jr.
45 Brodie Richards DT Sr.
48 Tanner Gibbs ILB Jr.
50 Cameron Cotnoir G, LS Sr.
53 Dale Hamilton DE Sr.
54 John Lewis G, NG Jr.
55 Zarius Johnson DE Sr.
57 Ce'aer James T Jr.
58 Kody Governor OLB, DE Sr.
64 Charles Schmidt OL Sr.
66 Caleb Turner G Jr.
68 Raymundo Gonzalez G, C Jr.
69 Austin Kaczmarek C Sr.
72 Jeren Bendorf NG, OG, OT Jr.
73 Javier Aquilar OG Jr.
75 Troy Rocha G So.
77 Blake Price G Sr.
78 Michael Guerra OL Jr.
80 Brent Coton WR So.
81 Michael Coton WR Sr.
83 Quincy Frazier WR Fr.
86 Patrick Previty WR Jr.
90 Tyree Day K So.
99 John Davis DE Jr.