TAMPA — Not so long ago, late-season matches against Sickles and Riverview, as well as the upcoming district tournament, would have been mere formalities for Plant.
Over the span of a decade, the Panthers won eight state championships and 10 district titles. Perhaps even more impressive, they didn’t lose a match to a Hillsborough public school. In short, they were the public school program others around the county measured themselves against.
Things have changed quite a bit in two years. Consider Monday’s match at Sickles.
The Panthers got revenge for an early-season defeat with a 2-1 nondistrict victory they hope signals their readiness for next week’s Class 8A, District 7 tournament.
“We’re definitely on a bit of an upswing,” first-year coach Jessica Lamm said. “Now we’re finally playing steadier. … But from the beginning (of the season), we’ve tried not to get bogged down with the great tradition here.”
The Panthers (12-10, 3-2) have won four of their past five matches, moving two games above .500 for the first time since starting 2-0. They are in a three-way tie for second place in the district with Bloomingdale and Durant, and two games behind top-seeded Wharton.
After losing earlier in the year to Sickles and Bloomingdale, Plant has rebounded — and shown improvement — with wins over both.
Lamm and her players point to the Oct. 4 victory over Bloomingdale as one that keyed the late-season turnaround.
“We wanted to show everyone how we can play,” senior outside hitter Ashley Cozart said. “And I feel like that’s the one that brought us back with the rest of the district.”
That they find themselves anywhere other than atop their district rivals would have seemed implausible as recently as 2010.
Slippage first showed last season under then-coach Amy Rumore, who replaced five-time state champion Leanna Taylor. Plant went on to suffer its first loss to a district opponent in at least a decade — 3-2 to Bloomingdale. The Panthers later lost in the region final to Palm Harbor University, ending a five-year championship streak.
Compounding those struggles, Rumore resigned to take a teaching job in Naples at the end of the year. Plant then turned to Lamm, who spent a year as head coach at Tampa Prep after working as an assistant three years.
Lamm found a team full of girls who had grown weary of the changes and were looking for consistency. After some early struggles learning her more running-based system, Lamm said the team has finally grasped some of the concepts.
“I had to gain their trust,” she said. “I think we’re getting there now.”
Taylor, now a coach at Queens College, can sympathize with the challenges facing Lamm.
When Taylor took over for Kimi Hellenberg, who moved into an administrative role after leading Plant to three straight state titles, the Panthers failed to immediately reach those heights again. But after two years of finishing short of the championship, Plant won — and won and won and won and won.
“Those kids over there have expectations of winning and success breeds success,” Taylor said. “(Lamm) has a proven record of being a good coach. It just takes a little time.”
Of course, there’s no guarantee Plant will ever be as dominant as it once was. Many schools have hired more experienced coaches, and that has filtered down to create a larger pool of good players. Wharton, Bloomingdale and Steinbrenner have emerged in recent years as playoff contenders.
Taylor remembers a very different time, when Plant went years without even losing a game to local public schools. “That was the kind of pride we had,” she said. “It’s not like we looked past anybody. We just had a standard we wanted to maintain.”
The Panthers will have to prove themselves all over again, perhaps as soon as next week in the district tournament. They will be the No. 2 seed and hope to get another shot at Wharton, which won its first 21 matches — including a 3-1 victory over Plant on Sept. 10.
“The first time … we didn’t realize how good they were,” Cozart said. “That’s when we really weren’t together as a team. Now I think we’re ready for it.”
Joel Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jdanderson.
Photo caption: Plant coach Jessica Lamm