TAMPA — Only a week from the state finals last year, Plant girls coach Margaret Drumsta got a phone call from her then-starting freshman Erica Oosterhout.
In a bit of incredibly bad timing, Oosterhout had torn a ligament in her left knee during a soccer tournament and would be out for at least the next six months.
“I kept asking her, ‘Are you joking?’ ” Drumsta said. “This has got to be a joke.”
No, Oosterhout insisted, this was no April Fools’ prank.
But Oosterhout has since promised to stay away from soccer for a while, which means bad news for her opponents and good news for Plant.
The 15-year-old sophomore was one of four Panthers to win singles matches Tuesday, leading Plant to a victory over Wiregrass Ranch in their Class 4A first-round region match at Cal Dixon Park.
No. 3 Gabby Rodriguez, No. 4 Monica Phipps and No. 5 Maria Salmon put the Panthers in position to advance with lopsided two-set victories.
Oosterhout, Plant’s No. 2, also made it look easy in her 6-0, 6-0 win over Victoria Chavez.
Drumsta said Oosterhout has returned from her injury even stronger. Oosterhout, who also runs cross country, believes she is rounding into shape just in time for the Panthers’ run for a third straight state championship.
“I feel really good,” she said. “And I haven’t even touched a soccer ball.”
The only blemish for Plant came in the No. 1 match as Blair Martin dropped her match to Wiregrass Ranch sophomore Star Makarome 6-1, 6-2.
It was a surprising defeat for Martin, a Fuman signee and defending region champion who has rarely been challenged during her undefeated senior season.
The coaches gave Martin and Makarome a chance to end the match after it was apparent that Plant would win the first-round matchup. But both girls decided to play on, getting the sort of test they rarely face against other opponents.
“It was a tough day, a tough loss,” Martin said. “We all have our off days. But I’ve got this under my belt, and it can only make me stronger for Thursday’s match.”
Hard-fought win for Wharton: At Valrico, a three-set victory by Wharton’s No. 2 doubles tandem of Racquel Royer and Gabrielle Paul capped a five-hour, 4-3 triumph against Newsome, propelling the Wildcats into Thursday’s Class 4A region second-rounder against Plant.
“It was unbelievable,” ’Cats coach Lori Miles said. “We knew that even though we won during the regular season, 6-1, a lot of the matches had gone to tiebreakers.”
The ’Cats cleared their bench in elation when the Royer-Paul team finished off Newsome’s Julia Staddon and Maggie Haggbloom 6-2, 3-6, 6-4. Wharton began the day with singles victories by Paul (No. 3), Andrea Valencia (No. 1) and Paul’s sister, Kylie (No. 2).
Kylie Paul, a junior, needed three sets to prevail.
Wharton prevails: The Wildcats took four of five singles matches vs. Plant City at Hunter’s Green, eliminating the need to play doubles.
The No. 4 singles match wrapped up in the blink of an eye as senior and Harvard-bound Cesar Maeda blanked Nick Stare 6-0, 6-0. Coming in close behind was senior Jack Lange taking down Austin Everett 6-2, 6-1 at No. 5, and Thomas Hwang went 6-0, 6-2 over Jake Cole at No. 3.
Then all eyes turned to the top two matchups. Sam Chaffin, a state qualifier from districts, battled the Raiders’ Harrison Heysek at No. 1, while Alek Crnogorac tangled with Heysek’s twin, Spencer.
Chaffin took the first set off Harrison but ran into problems getting his first serve in the second set and dropped it 0-6. Things unravelled for Chaffin as he fell behind 0-5 in the third set before forfeiting due to elbow pain.
“I didn’t start out good but I tried to get my tennis back and finally I did,” Harrison said.
It was up to Crnogorac — who wasn’t suffering from a sore elbow or a stomach virus like many of the Wildcats — to determine if
Wharton would even play the doubles matches. Crnogorac won the first set 6-4 then ratcheted up the pressure for a 6-0 second-set victory.
“(Crnogorac) can find spots but he’d rather hit kill shots, he’s that kind of player,” Wildcats coach Scott Ware said.
“My serves were not on that much so I had to rely on my service return,” Crnogorac said. “I tried not to think about it in the match but I knew if I won (the match) we’d move on.”
Staff writers Matt Baker and Joey Knight, and correspondent Andy Warrener contributed to this report.