Monday, November 9, 2009

Plant-Plant City Clash at Tampa Stadium, 11/9/79

A pair of undefeated teams battling it out for a Class 4-A district championship made for a dream matchup. The differences between the two teams made for a sportswriter's dream. The headline on the Nov. 7, 1979, front page of the Tampa Tribune sports section simply read: "The Game: It's the Country Boys vs. the City Slickers."

"Out here in Plant City, we're kind of the country folk," says former Plant City High head football coach Hank Sytsma, "with Plant being the city folk, so to speak. We were both 8-0 and everyone got caught up in it."

Sytsma refers to the hype surrounding the showdown for the District 7 title between Plant and Plant City, respectively the No. 4 and No. 6 ranked teams in the state. This would be the first time since the 1950s that two undefeated teams would meet to decide the champion. Interest in the contest had reached new heights in the week leading up to the game, scheduled to be played on Plant's home turf, Dads Stadium.

The stadium on Plant's campus could comfortably handle 7,500 fans, a number that raised red flags with the Hillsborough County School Board due to the immense interest in the game coming from fans of Plant City.

The previous week, County Athletic Director Wayne Williamson suggested spacious Tampa Stadium would serve as a more suitable location for the game. The idea of losing a home game -- and home field advantage -- at such a crucial moment bothered both Plant Principal Jack Marley and Plant Head Coach Roland Acosta, who doubted interest in the game would warrant a change of venue.

"We can handle up to 10,000 and I don't think we'll have more than that," Marley said.

For his part, Acosta predicted "there will be less people than you might expect."

The School Board disagreed, voting to move the game from Dads Stadium to Tampa Stadium. Anyone wanting to see the contest would have the opportunity.

"Common sense tells you that we needed to change the venue," Sytsma recalls. "I think the initial reaction by Plant is that they were ticked about the game moving, but it was good for both programs. We wanted everyone to see the game and the big thing was, the kids got the exposure and opportunity to play in a venue like Tampa Stadium."

There would be plenty of parking, plenty of available tickets and plenty of hype leading up to the game.

"It was in the papers and on television all that week, every day and night," Sytsma says.

People were drawn to the off-field contrasts between the two teams, despite their many similarities on the field. Both were defensive-minded teams that had given up a combined 80 points in 16 games. On the other side of the ball, each squad averaged 20-plus points per game. Sytsma describes his Plant City squad as a hard-working bunch who loved to play the game.

"We were pretty balanced on both sides of the ball," he says. "They weren't spectacular, but they played the game right."

Acosta predicted victory in this game for one reason: experience.

"Our kids have watched Plant win big games before and they've played in some big wins themselves," Acosta said. "We don't need any home field advantage to win."

On Nov. 9, 1979, all the hype and controversy surrounding the relocation of the game gave way to a simple battle between two teams with one goal: a district championship.

In front of an estimated crowd of 23,620 -- a Hillsborough County high school record -- the two schools played a game that lived up to all the anticipation. Both defenses succeeded in making life miserable for the opposing offenses, as neither team found success in sustaining drives.

An early Plant City fumble led to Plant's first touchdown, a 10-yard run by Reggie Walker to give his team a 7-0 lead. The score would remain that way until the third quarter, when Plant City turned a Plant fumble to their advantage.

Rudy Guion scored from six yards out to cap a 58-yard drive, and Plant City seemed poised to tie the game. Plant City kicker Chuck Everidge, however, pushed the extra-point attempt wide left, and instead of tying the game, the Raiders trailed the Panthers, 7-6.

With just 5:53 left in the fourth quarter, Plant running back Harold Ricks iced the game on a 39-yard touchdown dash up the middle to give his team a 14-6 lead.

Plant City got as close as the Plant 37 with 2:43 left in the game, but turned the ball over on downs and never regained possession. Plant defeated Plant City 14-6 and captured the District 7 championship.

A heartbreaking defeat for Plant City, but an experience that Sytsma says has proven unforgettable now 30 years later.

"When I see some of the kids from that team, that's something we always come back to," he says. "It was a big thing for the school, the city, the fans, but also for the players themselves. I don't think I've seen anything like that game since -- having over 23,000 for a high school game -- that would require a venue change or that so many people have gotten wrapped up with. And it was a well-played, close game that could have gone differently."

The city slickers vs the country boys. Plant vs Plant City. More than 23,000 in attendance at Tampa Stadium. A district championship hanging in the balance.

It was, as Sytsma says, "the perfect setting for the perfect storm."


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