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June 17, 2010

Plant football better, smarter than opponents

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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.

The Tampa (Fla.) Plant football team will be better than most of its opponents in 2010.

Star athlete James Wilder Jr. is the No. 3 player in the nation, quarterback Phillip Ely is one of the best in the state, and Plant's offensive line won the lineman challenge at the recent Heath Evans 7-on-7 at West Palm Beach (Fla.) The King's Academy. Suffice it to say, the Panthers expect to defend their consecutive state titles.

But as it turns out, the football team might be smarter than most of its opponents, too.

In the last two years, the football team has won one Class title and one overall state title in the classroom for team grade-point average. While the Panther football team finished the season ranked No. 17 in the RivalsHigh 100, the school was ranked No. 47 in the Newsweek ranking of Top High Schools in America.

"The education here is probably the key to the success in our program," defensive backs coach Bo Puckett said.

Puckett, an Air Force veteran, is a social studies teacher at Plant. He credits the culture of the school and community for the success the team sees on the field.

"Our community support at Plant is unmatched," he said. "Our academic foundation is incredible, and it really is not a top-down approach. The community involvement, in education, is paramount."

At Plant, there is a four-headed committee that leads the academic charge.

Taking a hands-on approach with the student-athletes are school psychologist Jim Landers, guidance counselors Louan Tolbert and Farah Remarais, and intervention specialist and former reading teacher Susan Gray.

The four, with the full support of football coach Robert Weiner, run a mandatory study session two-days a week - with an optional third day. Mondays and Tuesdays are mandatory days; Wednesday is optional. For about an hour, the team meets with the aforementioned leaders, additional volunteer teachers as well as peer tutors.

"Coach Weiner recognized that academic success was just as important as athletic success. He recognized there was a lag time between the end of the school day and the start of practice," Landers said. "He didn't want the players to be idle, and he didn't want practice to interfere with their school work."

The football program, which started its rise to national prominence in 2006 with the emergence of quarterback Robert Marve, is now entrenched in an all-out assault on education.

"Our high school academics are very advanced," Weiner said.

The focus of the extra study time varies, according to Landers. Some players use the period as a traditional study hall. They can do homework, study on their own or prepare for tests. Other players can receive tutoring in selected academic subjects such as Math, English, History, or Foreign Languages.

"Often our players tutor their teammates in these subjects," Landers said. "They are very willing to help their teammates and we appreciate their efforts."

Tolbert also educates the players about another important topic - recruiting. She outlines graduation requirements and other details that will help prospective student-athletes with the NCAA Clearinghouse.

Weiner, who was an AP English teacher at Tampa (Fla.) Jesuit before coming to Plant, says his academic approach is simple.

Stewards of the school
Not only does the Plant football team excel in the classroom, the players take pride in doing the right things in their personal lives.

"We have a large group of kids, almost 100, who are on the team," Puckett said. "If the group starts to see a kid going down the wrong path they reel him back in. The players govern themselves. We don't have to get involved in many situations."

In an age where the emphasis often slides to the athlete portion of student-athlete, Weiner says he is proud of his players' off-the-field decisions.

"We aren't perfect by any means," he said. "But we stress that you can either watch, join in, or be a leader. We think our kids are leaders to do the right thing."

Weiner says that the example of doing what's right can be passed down from the team.

"When you are as good as we have been recently, you get to set the standards - get to say what is 'cool' and what isn't," he said.

Now, that's cool.

- Jackson

"We train up," he said. "We try to identify the kids who like to be challenged and stimulate them. We also try to identify the kids who could struggle and get them the help they need."

The process starts early.

"For juniors and seniors it could be too late," Weiner said. "We want to have these kids engaged as soon as they come to us, as freshman or sophomores."

The goals are simply stated as well.

"We want to maximize the intellect of the kids," Weiner said. "We want to take regular students and make them honor students. We want honor students to be exceptional students."

Plant's program is producing on and off the field. Of the 1,623 schools ranked by Newsweek, only 6 percent - roughly 97 schools - were public schools. Of the football teams ranked in the RivalsHigh 100 last season, only two other schools were ranked in the top 100 by Newsweek - Austin (Texas) Westlake (No. 58 in education; No. 68 in football) and Bellevue (Wash.) High (No. 80 in education; No. 95 in football).

"Coach Weiner is very involved with the kids," Landers said. "He never stops planning, he never stops working for the players. He has stunned all of us. He really cares about getting our players into college, getting them scholarships, getting them ready for the next phase of their life."

And the football team cares about the educational support.

According to Puckett, the academic advisors are as much a part of the team as the coaches on the field.

"Those guys are part of the Plant football family," he said. "We are so proud of them and what they have done. Heck, they get state championship rings, too."

If things stay the course, all involved could add another ring to their collections.

MORE: Heath Evans demands kids make their days count | Photo gallery: Talent on display at 7-on-7

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