Will Turner, Special to Prep Sports Scouting

Six months ago, Plant battled national powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas for a state championship in the 7A title game for boys football and was unsuccessful.

This past weekend, the Lady Panthers – in flag football – took on state powerhouse Loxahatchee Seminole Ridge in the 2A title game and took a state championship back to South Tampa. The Panthers broke the Hawks’ 52-game winning streak in the process.

For head coach Bo Puckett, the feeling was something very different to him.

“Saturday was great. It was so special to me, even more so than the [four] state championships Plant’s won in boys football. My staff and I built this and it has been so rewarding to us,” Puckett told Prep Sports Scouting.

Those four state championships in boys football (won in a time span of six years) were coached by Robert Weiner, who witnessed the ladies take home their title on Saturday. Pictures on Twitter showed Weiner talking to the team before they left for Gainesville on Friday, in which he focused on talking about how to deal with momentum and to use it as fuel, according to Puckett.

“Coach Weiner and I are best friends and he’s stayed with us the whole time. He’s actually helping design our ring,” Puckett said. “He’s a big fan of [quarterback] Payton Paro and he really holds her just as high as the Robert Marve’s and Aaron Murray’s of the world.”

Paro, a dual-sport athlete who pairs flag football with basketball, was one of the major reasons the Panthers came out on top of 2A this season. The senior was 345-of-497 with 3,371 passing yards, 53 touchdowns and 26 PAT conversions. Paro served not only as the star player but as a recruiter to increase interest of the sport at Plant.

“She was our best recruiter this season. She basically convinced most of the girls’ basketball team to come out for flag this year,” Puckett said.

That included Bella Moreno, a transfer from Berkeley Prep, who was a 1,000-point scorer in basketball over her career.

“Bella came up huge for us this year. She’s the kind of girl (and I’m not kidding), that will go to the gym every morning at 6 a.m. and take 600 shots,” he said

A number of other Plant Panthers made big contributions to the state championship run, including Honor Culpepper, the freshman sister of Division-1 recruit Judge and Syracuse QB Rex Culpepper. Honor Culpepper “shattered” the freshman record in receiving yards with 446 yards on 62 receptions and came up with timely blocks.

“We’ve got girls like Kim Shaw, from New Zealand, who came in knowing nothing about football but eventually became a starter and came up huge for us this year. We put one of our sophomores, Sydney Crosby, at center and she ended up breaking a lot of the records for centers and a lot of people don’t know her name well,” Puckett said.

Crosby led the team in receptions with 92 while compiling 694 receiving yards and eight touchdowns while Shaw contributed with 500 yards and eight touchdowns of her own. Another Sydney, Sydney Johnson also came up as a two-way player who came up big with 77 flag pulls (leading the team) and five interceptions.

But none came up as big as Paro and Sam Ashby, who had their numbers retired at the Plant flag football banquet on Sunday night.

“Sam and Payton are the first two girls enshrined in the Panther Flag Football Hall of Fame,” he said. “They’re four-year starters, All-Western Conference girls, All-State team girls, they’ve been instrumental in our success.”

The other big story of the weekend – Hillsborough County graduations throughout Friday and Saturday. Plant’s commencement took place on Friday at 12:30 p.m., the second graduation in the county. The Panthers would be in Gainesville for their semifinal against Orlando Dr. Phillips that afternoon. So that brought up an interesting question – would the FHSAA postpone the game for the four seniors (Paro, Ashby, Moreno, and Johnson), or would they miss graduation?

“It was actually a couple of days before when we won the regional championship that we realized it. I thought that we would end up going to that game with no seniors. Payton was actually the first to say that she was going to go to the state championship, then the others followed. Even if they didn’t come, it would have been the right decision,” Puckett said. “What was cool about it, families were literally flying in from all over the world [for graduation], but even when the seniors decided to play the game, the families went up to Gainesville with us. The payoff ended up being tremendous and all of them are walking on cloud nine.”

Also on Saturday, Robinson captured its third state championship in four years, beginning the South Tampa sweep in Gainesville. The Knights and Panthers have been rivals dating back to the beginning of the 20th-century in all sports, but the rivalry was tossed aside for a chance to bring pride and notoriety to the South Tampa area.

“Earlier in the season, we had gotten together with Robinson’s girls at a Children’s Cancer Center and we all helped a bunch of kids out and it really gave all of us a chance to bond together. We actually have two sets of sisters where one is at Robinson playing flag and one is at Plant. Coach Saunders and I have become really good friends in watching film and game planning. Without him, what we did wouldn’t have been possible,” Puckett said.

The sweep in South Tampa also serves a different purpose, that of making the spread of flag football appealing to a mass amount of schools in adjacent counties in Pinellas, Polk, Pasco, and Manatee. Right now, the sport is clustered with patches in Hillsborough County, as well as Orlando, Miami and the rest of southeast Florida.

“I think the championships will definitely help the spread. There’s a lot of coaches in Manatee County that are starting programs and they want to know what’s going on at Plant and Robinson. We know what position we’re in now, trying to establish a network of coaches to act as ambassadors in this growing sport.”

Puckett and Saunders now have to serve as advocates for the sport in addition to their roles as head coaches of state championship-caliber programs.

“Miami is really growing in interest for flag and it’s a really talent-filled area,” Puckett said. “The X’s and O’s are something that will really be improved on in the upcoming years down there. Our goal is to help the up-and-coming programs around the state.”

For Puckett, it’s now about improving his team even more after this year’s run. Plant loses only four seniors, however, those four will be difficult to replace, specifically Paro’s spot at quarterback.

“Replacing Payton will be the key to our season next year,” Puckett said.

It’s also about switching back into the gears of boys football as the Panthers will try to make a second consecutive appearance at Camping World Stadium in December and this time, win a championship of their own.

“We’re carrying on the traditions of our boys’ football program and at the same time to create a legacy of our own,” Puckett said.

In case you missed it: Robinson girls wins back to back titles and third in four years

Photo credit: Florida HS Football

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