TAMPA — A sound night of baseball highlighted by great grabs and crisp throws was status quo for Plant.
But what proved stunning in the season opener at Bloomingdale was how the 11-inning game ended in a 2-1 loss, just the second time these Panthers seniors experienced a losing record.
It was clear in mid February that the 2009 Panthers were nothing like their predecessors.
"A bunch of the guys had been used to 10-run ruling every team," senior Graham Ramos said of the '08 team. "That game set the tone for the rest of the year. That's what helped us the most. We know how to grind."
Plant evolved through the season, with several key additions learning their roles and a handful of upperclassmen rising in clutch situations.
In 13 games decided by three runs or fewer — seven by one run — the Panthers became battle tested in pressure situations.
Plant (22-7) ultimately advanced to this weekend's best-of-three Class 5A region final at Charlotte (20-10) thanks to one stellar walkoff home run and one cold-blooded pitching performance.
Ramos, whose blast sealed a 3-1 win over East Lake in the region quarterfinals, said he used a calming technique coach Dennis Braun has pushed all season. Ramos took deep breaths between pitches and visualized a successful hit.
Braun said he generally wants kids to absorb the moment and move on, but it's not always easy.
"It's hard for kids to understand this game because it's a game of failure and that's tough on teenagers," Braun said. "They want to be successful, but when it comes to hitting you can't be successful all the time. They're starting to learn that."
The Panthers had new starters at first (Stan Rowe) and second base (Dylan Henderson), catcher (Stevie Gonzalez) and leftfield (Conner Mitchell). Their ability to adapt proved critical to advancing.
Henderson's single in the eighth inning of Friday's 3-2 win over Jesuit was just the latest example, allowing him ultimately to cross the plate for the winning run.
"They all had big steps to fill," Ramos said. "In the beginning of the season I think they were trying to beat (their predecessors). But they realized they aren't them, and they just molded to what we needed."
With the defense playing sound ball and Plant's bats now producing, the pitching trio of Rowe, Mychal Givens and Sergio Pita has more confidence. It showed in the district final against Jesuit when Pita pitched arguably the best game of his high school career. And certainly it proved to be a factor Friday when Givens shrugged off a rough first inning for a complete-game victory with 14 strikeouts.
"All we have to do is go out there and have fun," Givens said. "Those younger players are relaxed and that helps us feel more relaxed."
Izzy Gould can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3458.