As the reputation of Florida high school football has grown — and been put on national display via satellite television — Hillsborough County teams have, in quick fashion, made themselves a fixture in this setting.
Tonight, three of the county's top football programs will take part in games that have little to do with district races or local top 10 lists. Four-time state champion Plant, three-time state title winner Armwood and perennial playoff program Hillsborough look to take the county's reputation to a new level by facing opponents of equal stature on high-profile stages.
Yes, these three teams will be by doing what they do every week — suiting up, stepping on the field and pounding until the final whistle blows — but they're also taking risks and grasping at a great opportunity.
''Playing at a high level is what we're all about," said Armwood coach Sean Callahan, whose team will host Delray Beach American Heritage tonight in Seffner.
Callahan's son, Kirk, an assistant at the University of Central Florida, heard in January that American Heritage was looking for a game. Armwood was able to fill the slot and even managed to get home-field advantage.
The Stallions have won three state titles in the last five seasons (including last season's Class 3A crown) and already have a nationally-televised game under their belts in last month's preseason loss to Cocoa.
Armwood is still trying to shake off a cloud carried from this summer's decision to strip the team of nearly two seasons of wins and a 2011 state title for ineligible players. But the Hawks' reputation for physical football and wealth of talent are big reasons why they continue to attract these type of games. Callahan says there's no question he will continue to take on high-caliber opponents.
Because in order to succeed later this fall in the playoffs, Callahan says his team needs to take every chance to play the best teams it can — even if that means things don't go the Hawks' way.
"I have to keep playing state championship-type teams so that my teams are used to playing the best," Callahan said. "Right now, I think American Heritage is better than us, but I think it will do us good in the long run, especially during the playoffs later this year."
The opportunity also creates a number of challenges. The atmosphere created could be likened to a college setting, with out-of-area travel — minus the added help that goes along with college programs like sports information directors, equipment managers and teams of therapists and doctors.
For most of the details, large and small, Plant relies on coach Robert Weiner to get them done.
On top of a workload stacked with teaching English classes, preparing game plans, film study and practices, Weiner has had an unending amount of extras this week to help his players prepare for their game tonight in the New Orleans Superdome (live on Sun Sports after the Rays game) to face River Ridge (La.) John Curtis Christian, winners of 24 state titles, including last season's Class 2A crown.
"The work honestly is immeasurable," Weiner said. "We're doing something really colleges do, but we are doing it without sports information director, without travel personnel, without someone who deals with the hotel and catering."
Weiner's task is also being tripped up by last week's weather. Hurricane Isaac, which hit the Gulf Coast, caused the Panthers' hotel to be overbooked with relief workers and FEMA officials.
"You plan for hours and hours way back in the summer and things change," Weiner said. "I think sometimes you have to be the ringleader and stay ahead of the things I can (stay ahead of). I am a football coach, so I have to prepare for the game, but this is an unprecedented opportunity for our team. And if I have to do those other things as well, it's all worth it."
The Panthers scheduling Curtis created a vacancy for Hillsborough. Here too, an out-of-area opponent stepped in. This time, it's 2010 2A state champs Cocoa. The Tigers, who make a tradition of looking everywhere for opponents, played well in their preseason win over American Heritage but faltered in Week 1, falling 16-7 to Philadelphia's St. Joseph's Prep.
Cocoa also has games scheduled this season against Ft. Lauderdale University and Bergen Catholic (Oradell, N.J.), a team Plant defeated in 2011.
Longtime Hillsborough coach Earl Garcia said he is looking for the same edge Plant and Armwood have gotten by looking outside the county for a team that can help the Terriers improve.
"It's a neat experience for our kids to get on a charter bus and go across the state to play a great opponent," Garcia said. "It's a big-time atmosphere during the regular season, and we haven't had that in a while."
And for all three teams, tonight will be a chance to grow as a program and for Hillsborough County football teams' reputation to grow in the state — and the nation.
"This has been something that has fed itself," Weiner said. "And Hillsborough County may be the best example because there has been this growth with these great teams —- the Jeffersons, the Jesuits, the Hillsboroughs. We face Robinson every year, and Tampa Bay Tech may have its best team ever.
''All these national games come from the push from the overall competiveness from these teams in our county, and it's made all of our teams better."