When senior captain Mike Cibene and the rest of the Pine Crest players arrived for the first day of camp on Aug. 6, their one goal was to win a championship.
A few weeks later, 14 South Florida programs from Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties were set to begin competition in the newly created Southeastern Football Conference (SFC) rather than in districts or as independents.
Heading into the 10th and final week of the season, the Panthers will face Palm Beach County’s Benjamin School in the conference’s inaugural championship game at 7 p.m. Saturday at FAU Stadium.
Coach Jim Pletcher plans to bring the team to the venue about 15 minutes earlier than usual so the players can walk around and get acclimated with their surroundings. He has been emphasizing that it’s the “same-sized field we’ve been playing on all year.”
But this time, the student television station will stream the game. The conference has asked the other schools to come and show support. Both Pine Crest and Benjamin have been selling tickets in advance.
“It’s been high excitement and we’re going to get there a bit earlier so they can get in the stadium and get rid of the wow factor,” Pletcher said. “Some of these kids — 16 seniors — for some of them it will be the last football game they’ll ever play in their lives. They’re real jacked up about it and looking forward to the opportunity.”
The Panthers (9-1) welcomed eight new players on offense and another six on defense this year. During the first series of their fourth game, they lost senior quarterback and captain Daniel Arkin to an injury.
In his place, sophomore Zach Smith has stepped up, going 43 of 94 for 695 yards, with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions. Junior running back Trevor Osceola made all-conference with 626 yards and 12 touchdowns. Senior captain Kyle Diener added 367 yards and four touchdowns.
“I’m excited because it’s a championship game,” Diener said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun because it’s the first championship game any of us has ever played in. I’m trying to play somewhere in college, so hopefully it’s not my last game, but it could be, so I’m going to treat it like that. I’m excited and ready to go.”
Benjamin will be a familiar foe for Pine Crest. The Buccaneers (9-1) handed the Panthers their only loss of the season, 41-26, on Oct. 12. In that game, Pletcher said the team learned that it “can’t play with turnovers, penalties and make mistakes against a real good football team.”
Pine Crest has won its three games since then, including postseason matchups against Florida Christian and Pope John Paul II.
“As we started winning games, we were step-by-step closer to our goal, and we only have one more left,” said Cibene, who is a defensive end and offensive lineman. “At first we were down [when we lost to Benjamin], but we came together and said we’re not done yet and we could very well see them in the first or second round, maybe even the championship game. I’m extremely excited to play them again.”
The early national signing period for several sports including baseball and basketball began Wednesday, with several Broward County schools’ top athletes inking letters of intent.