For the first time since August, the Plant City Raiders lost a football game.
Unfortunately, that 17-7 loss to Braden River High means that the Raiders' wild 2015 ride is over.
The Raiders got off to a solid start, with Corey King throwing a 23-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Chase at the 7:40 mark of the first quarter. Plant City's speed appeared to throw off the Pirates, who initially attempted to stop the home team with one active safety.
Braden River had entered the game assuming the Raiders would work primarily through running back Markese Hargrove, as is custom, but head coach Greg Meyer decided to open up the playbook and get the passing game going.
However, pressure up front derailed those plans. King finished the evening with three interceptions thrown – although one was tipped into a defender's hands – and was forced into a number of bad throws when flushed out of the pocket. After the first pick, made by Braden River linebacker Noah Arce, quarterback Jake Huesman kept the drive going through the start of the second quarter and finished with a goal-line pass touchdown to Deshaun Fenwick to tie. With 23 seconds to play in the half, the Pirates kicked a 30-yard field goal to go into the locker room with a 10-7 lead.
Early in the third quarter, King threw an interception at the goal line while attempting to float a pass to Tydre Ward. Braden River began committing to using two active safeties on defense, an adjustment that threw King off and stopped Plant City before it could get much of anything going.
At the 4:39 mark, Huesman nearly threw another touchdown pass. Tight end Ryan Neuzil made an easy catch, ran inside the red zone and would have scored, if not for a last-minute hustle play by Tammarrion Faison and Antoine Thompson to punch the ball out. Plant City recovered in the end zone, but could not make anything happen.
Pirates running back Dexter Hodo owned the fourth quarter, doing to Plant City what the team did to Venice the week prior: running hard and effectively, draining the clock. Hodo came alive after Plant City recovered a fumble and had another three-and-out, and the running back got the Pirates in position to complete a 17-yard touchdown pass to Juwaan Jenkins at the 5:24 mark.
Just a handful of plays later, King's tipped-pass interception gave Braden River the ball back, and Hodo picked up enough first downs to help the team drain the clock completely.
It was the first time either team had ever appeared in a regional championship game. Braden River will face St. Thomas Aquinas in the FHSAA Final Four.
On a positive note, Hargrove's performance netted him something to hang his hat on: the senior finished the game as Plant City's new career rushing yards leader, surpassing previous head coach Wayne Ward.