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State tennis: Tested, but triumphant Plant girls nab third straight title

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Thu. April 18, 2013 | Joel Anderson

State tennis: Tested, but triumphant Plant girls nab third straight title

ALTAMONTE SPRINGS — In the shade just outside of the court, with only one set left in their season, Plant doubles partners Blair Martin and Gabby Rodriguez found themselves on the brink of total exhaustion.

Martin was sprawled on the concrete, getting her cramping hamstrings stretched by an on-site trainer and nibbling a protein snack at the behest of coach Margaret Drumsta.

Rodriguez plopped down on a bench, stared ahead and gave voice to their weariness.

“Something is going to break after this match,” she said to no one in particular. “Either my heart or my body.”

Neither happened.

Instead Martin and Rodriguez broke their opponents from Cypress Bay in the third and final set of their doubles match Thursday afternoon, clinching Plant’s third straight Class 4A state championship.

Their 2-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory was the gritty culmination of nearly six hours of tennis on the final day of team competition.

“I really didn’t think this was going to happen,” said Drumsta, a champion in her only two seasons as a tennis coach. “It would have been easier to give up.”

Martin and Rodriguez rallied from first-set losses in two matches for their title. The No. 2 doubles team of Erica Oosterhout and Monica Phipps cruised to their championship, and Rodriguez notched a victory at No. 3 singles.

That gave Plant, in its sixth consecutive state tournament appearance, enough points to edge Cypress Bay after trailing throughout both days of the state finals.

When it was all over, Rodriguez wrapped herself tight around Martin, and their teammates rushed onto the court to join the celebration. Martin’s mother, Robyn Martin, burst into tears for the second time that afternoon.

“She can barely move out there,” Robyn Martin said of her daughter, a reigning two-time Times’ Player of the Year. “I can’t believe it ended like this. This is what Panther tennis is all about.”

No other Hillsborough team or player claimed a state championship Thursday, but several came close.

Two singles players from Jesuit (No. 1 Jordan Nasser and No. 5 Alex Crosby), Academy of the Holy Names (No. 1 Daniela Nasser and No. 2 Caroline Lozo), and Plant’s individual doubles team each finished as runners-up in their respective classes.

But Martin and Rodriguez, doubles teammates from the past two years, stole the spotlight at Sanlando Park after digging themselves early deficits in their semifinals and finals.

The previous evening at the hotel, Drumsta spent much of her dinner time calculating the number of points needed Thursday to overtake Cypress Bay.

She figured out the Panthers could afford to lose only one match and still have a chance.

That early loser was Martin, falling 6-4, 6-4 in the No. 1 team singles final to Winter Park’s Joulia Likhanskaia. Likhanskaia also defeated Martin in last year’s No. 1 singles match.

“I had every confidence in Blair that she could beat Joulia,” Drumsta said. “But I knew she might struggle, too.”

Meanwhile, nearby on the same court, Rodriguez easily dispatched Winter Park’s Olivia Schuitema 6-2, 6-0 for the No. 3 team singles title.

About an hour later, Martin and Rodriguez had to team up for a critical semifinal against Dr. Krop’s Cassie Pough and Danna Gandelman.

Pough and Gandelman won the first set 6-1, making Martin and Rodriguez look slow and overwhelmed in the process. The fatigue and frustration showed on their faces and in their disgusted shrieks.

“We’re not used to losing sets,” Rodriguez said. “We didn’t know how to cope.”

Dr. Krop took a 4-3 lead in the second set before Martin and Rodriguez rallied to win the next three games and set up a tiebreaker. In the final set, Plant stormed out to an early lead and won the nearly two-hour match 6-3.

They didn’t have long to celebrate, as they had to gather themselves for the final 45 minutes later against Pierina Imparato and Shene Disbergen.

On an adjacent court, Oosterhout and Phipps — a sophomore and freshman, respectively — rolled to a 6-3, 6-4 No. 2 doubles win that the Panthers needed to remain in contention for the 4A title.

“We knew we had to win,” Oosterhout said.

By the time their teammates had finished their match, Martin and Rodriguez had dropped the first set and again looked like they might have run out of gas.

“We were so tired,” Rodriguez said. “But I couldn’t say I got second (place) because I was tired. That’s not good enough.”

The momentum shifted quickly. Martin and Rodriguez, who had won as doubles champions last year and followed that with a USTA state title, found a second wind and relied heavily on their chemistry to regain the lead.

After one game-winning point, a particularly nifty shot by Martin, Rodriguez  — ever the team cheerleader — offered some lofty praise for the senior.

“You’re so dirty,” Rodriguez said. “What am I going to do with you?”

When it was all over a few minutes later, here’s what Rodriguez did: she leaped into Martin’s arms and celebrated another improbable comeback victory for the Panthers.

Martin, exhausted, elated and weakened by cramps, summoned enough energy to hold her up.

Same as ever.

Joel Anderson can be reached at janderson@tampabay.com or on Twitter @jdhometeam.

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