TAMPA — No matter the pain or inconvenience, Erica Oosterhout was determined to accompany her Plant teammates to the state finals.
Oosterhout had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee during a soccer tournament the week before the finals, a lamentable bit of timing for the then-freshman and the Panthers.
But what Oosterhout couldn’t do for them on the court, she did for them off of it: taking her replacement through some warmups and rooting her teammates on to another state title.
“I was limping all over the place but I still tried to push through it,” Oosterhout recalled. “It’s really stressful when you can’t get out there and do it yourself.”
That shouldn’t pose much of a problem this week, when Oosterhout makes her long-awaited return to the state finals as the No. 2 singles player for the two-time defending Class 4A champions.
Oosterhout will be joined at Sanlando Park in Altamonte Springs by a team with one upperclassman (No. 1 singles player Blair Martin), two fellow sophomores and a freshman, and the expectations that come with being a repeat champion.
Despite their relative youth, the Panthers enter the state tournament with the understanding that other teams are “gunning for them,” coach Margaret Drumsta said.
“We’ve got a lot to live up to,” Drumsta said. “We know that we’ve got a big target on our backs.”
First-round team singles matches will start at 8 a.m. Wednesday. They are followed by individual singles matches and individual doubles teams.
Finals begin Thursday.
As certain as pollen in the spring, Plant’s girls tennis team has turned state finals appearances into something of a seasonal ritual.
This will be the Panthers’ sixth consecutive state tournament berth, with championships in three of the past four years.
The run has included three coaches — Drumsta, who had never coached tennis previously is in only her second year — and dozens of players, affirming Plant’s status as one of the state’s true powerhouse programs.
All of turnover hasn’t stopped its title runs.
Plant has managed to reload with underclassmen like Oosterhout and No. 3 singles player Gabby Rodriguez, who was a member of the state championship last year as a freshman. As a sign of the Panthers’ unusually deep pool of talent, Oosterhout climbed into the No. 2 singles spot that belonged to Rodriguez in 2012.
In fact, it’s because of that obscene depth that Plant was able to claim the state championship despite Oosterhout’s absence: No. 4 singles player Natalie Franklin won her team singles match and the Panthers won both doubles matches.
“It’s crazy when you think of all the talent that’s here,” said Drumsta, who has gotten up to speed on the game in the past couple years by practicing with her players. “All of these girls have really helped to build a foundation here.”
One of the players who helped lay that foundation is Martin, a two-time Tampa Bay Times’ Player of the Year and a Furman signee who has been to the state tournament every year in high school.
Now the only upperclassman on the team, Martin excitedly recounted her experiences at Altamonte Springs and talked of relishing the opportunity to lead her younger teammates to another title.
“I looked up to so many of my older teammates,” she said recently after a practice. “I wanted to follow in their footsteps.”
With an eye to the future, Martin directed her gaze at freshman Monica Phipps — the team’s No. 4 player.
“We better be ready, right?” she said, smiling but still serious.
Oosterhout, in particular, is ready for her turn to contribute to a state championship after missing out last spring.
If history is any indication, it will be the first of several opportunities.
“We probably have a better team than we had last year,” Oosterhout said. “I knew we would be back.”