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LAKELAND — Two seasons ago, five unknown sophomore volleyball players on Plant High School’s second team had their first crowning moment, beating a Panthers starting rotation that included six future Division I-A players and two All-Americans the day before the state tournament.
“To them, that was their state championship,” Plant coach Leanna Taylor said.
They watched their predecessors create a dynasty with a third straight state championship at the Lakeland Center days later, biding their time in the shadows of volleyball greatness.
On Saturday evening, the spotlight was finally theirs. That same quintet — seniors Alex Johnson, Tina Catanach, Callie Henley, Charlotte Hill and Paige Tuttle — ended its high school career as a state champion. Plant has a second straight class that knows nothing but gold.
The Panthers won their fifth straight state title on George Jenkins Arena Court, beating Orlando Boone 25-13, 25-14, 25-16 in little more than an hour. But for the Plant seniors, it was a memory that will last forever.
“It’s a feeling I know I’ll never forget,” senior middle hitter Tuttle said. “People say, 'Oh yeah, you’ll remember when you get married, when you have your first child.’
“I’m going to remember winning the state championship with these four girls by my side. That’s going to be the biggest memory that’s going to last me forever.”
It was Plant’s eighth title since 2001 and 10th overall, fourth most in state history.
The victory, combined with titles won by East Lake and Berkeley Prep, marks the sixth time since 1990 that the Tampa Bay area has won three state volleyball titles in one season.
With the graduation of All-Americans Maddie Martin (Penn State) and Ali McCurdy (Duke), this was supposed to be the year to beat the Panthers. Early in the season, injuries and losses piled up, and coming out of the Berkeley Premier tournament, they were just 9-6.
They never lost again.
“I knew what I had,” said Taylor, 33. “I knew my lineup. Everyone would look at me and say, 'Oh, well you’re just always so positive.’
But I know what I’ve got every year.”
What most people didn’t see were the Panthers’ practices, which operated with the same precision. To practice serving, Taylor put a dot on the floor as a target and told her players, “Aim small, miss small.”
And once the Panthers (24-6) arrived at the state tournament this year, they wowed opponents with their serving. In two matches here, Plant tallied 23 aces, including 12 against Boone.
“They served tough and made sure we weren’t able to run our offense,” Boone coach Michael Ladewski said. “They make you play a game that you’re not familiar playing.”
Plant led throughout. Boone’s Game 2 rally to draw within two at 11-9 was the only glimmer of hope for the Braves (23-10), who beat four teams in the postseason that they had lost to in the regular season.
But for Plant, this state tournament was all about familiarity, despite some new faces. And each of the five seniors played their part.
Outside hitter Johnson had a team-high 12 kills. Catanach added 10 kills, seven digs and four aces. Henley had four aces, four digs and two block assists. Hill led with 14 digs, and Tuttle had five kills and four block assists.
“These girls, they knew we had something to prove,” Taylor said. “From seeing them as freshmen and graduating them, it’s a phenomenal development I’m seeing as a coach.”
And they finally had their own crowning moment — and not just one in practice.
“It’s surreal,” Johnson said. “It’s unfathomable how you can accomplish something like this in your high school career. You don’t think it’s done.
“We came from under the ranks. Everyone was like, 'You’re not going to win again,’ and it feels even better than I could ever imagine.”