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August 9, 2010

No. 1 Plant set to take on all combatants

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Dallas Jackson is the Senior Analyst for RivalsHigh. Email him your question, comment or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

After two weeks of being introduced to 99 of the best high school football teams in the country, it's now time to meet the No. 1 team.

RivalsHigh.com started its 2010 countdown at No. 100 back on July 26.

Now, with the preseason rankings complete and officially two weeks away from the start of the season, we will wait until Sept. 1 for the next rankings. After that, we'll have them every Monday during the season.

The team rankings were compiled by high school sports senior analyst Dallas Jackson, the Rivals AMP team, football recruiting analysts and the entire RivalsHigh network of publishers.

In case you missed it: Previous ranking groups | Post your thoughts about the rankings

Top 100 countdown
No. 1 Tampa Plant, Florida
COACH: Robert Weiner
LAST SEASON: 13-1, Florida Class 5A State Champs
FINAL 2009 RANKING: No. 17 in RivalsHigh 100

Coming off back-to-back state titles in Florida, the Tampa (Fla.) Plant Panthers have dealt with expectation.

Starting the season as the No. 1 team in the RivalsHigh 100 is something else altogether.

Head coach Robert Weiner says neither will affect the team.

"When you have won like we have won and have the players coming back we have, expectations are going to happen," he said. "We lost 44 seniors after our first state title and we lost 43 seniors from last year's team. So this is a completely different group that is facing the expectations placed on them. We have to approach each year differently, rankings or not."

The rankings, and therefore expectations, are certainly there for a team that has won the Florida Class 4A state title in 2008 and the Class 5A state title in 2009.

It also doesn't hurt that the Panthers are bringing back one of the best players in the country, James Wilder Jr., and a two-time state championship quarterback, Phillip Ely.

Wilder, the son of the former NFL great by the same name, is ranked as the No. 3 overall prospect in the Rivals 100 for the Class of 2011. Where he'll play next season will be known soon.

Weiner confirmed on Monday to FlaVarsity.com that Wilder will announce his college decision on Aug. 18, likely around 5 p.m.

He also recognizes the talent he has on the field and admits to being in awe of the ability of Wilder.

"James is a maniac and I am not sure he knows it," Weiner said. "It is like going for a run with your dog. Your dog doesn't know how far you are going so he just takes off. That is just like James. He goes as hard as he can until the whistle. Then he does it again. I have never seen a player with that kind of intensity from start to finish."

But it doesn't end there with Wilder.

"What people don't know about James is what makes him truly special," Weiner said. "I have seen good players who just rely on their natural ability, but James' effort actually exceeds his ability. He works his butt off to get better. He has amazing effort and he plays with an incredible passion. He is also a sponge. Anything we try to teach him he absorbs, he loves to learn and loves to be coached."

Ely follows in those accolades from Weiner.

"When Phillip first came up with us, he was to follow Aaron Murray, and heck he may have been 5-foot-9 then," Weiner recalled. "And he couldn't bench press two 45-pound plates. Now, he is 6-foot-1 and a real football player."

Weiner wouldn't comment on his bench, but it's safe to assume that it has improved too.

The main part of Ely's game, though, is one that is often overlooked.

He's a winner.

Ely is now 19-0 as a starter and has won two state titles.

"He doesn't have a 'wow factor,'" Weiner said. "But when you measure a quarterback you can look for yards or arm strength, but what is most important is - does he know how to win? Does the team buy into him as a leader? And the kids know with Phillip they have a chance to win."

All of the accolades aside, the team still will need to get it done on the field.

After an up-and-down spring and summer, one that included a spring game loss to nearby Tampa (Fla.) Jefferson - who is ranked No. 61 in the RivalsHigh 100, but a team Plant beat 46-13 last season - the games can not start soon enough for Plant.

"We will know pretty much everything we will need to know after our first six games of the season," Weiner said.

Those games include a jamboree game against No. 49-ranked Bradenton (Fla.) Manatee; a season opener at Tampa (Fla.) Tampa Bay Tech, who handed Plant its only loss last year; rival Tampa (Fla.) Hillsborough; a nationally-televised game against the RivalsHigh100 No. 3 team in Abilene (Texas) High; and finally a home contest against No. 26 Seffner (Fla.) Armwood.

"If you want to play the kind of football we want to play, that is the kind of schedule you want to have," Weiner said. "Week in and week out, we are taking on the best we can."

Hard to argue that mentality, but six straight tough games before the calendar turns to October may be hard to handle.

"The Abilene game was brought to us by ESPN," Weiner said. "Matching up some of the top teams from Florida and Texas, two returning state champs, and showcasing those teams is hard to say no to. It is hard to take something like that from these kids."

Another thing no one can take from the kids at Plant is the team's collective heart.

The Panthers, who don't have as many hardships as far as teams go, enter the season having played against adversity and are starting to embrace the naysayers as well as hostile environments.

"People didn't give us a chance going down to take on Lakeland last year," Weiner said. "But we got that done. Now we will go to Abilene where there will be 30,000 people in the stands and probably 29,800 will be rooting for us to lose."

All of the rankings and expectations will be measured in front of a national audience for Plant.

"If we make it through our schedule and the playoffs without a loss, I think all of this hype will be justified," Weiner said. "We still have a long way to go and a lot of games to win."

It all starts in less than three weeks.

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