TAMPA — Most high school tennis teams that lose their No. 1 singles player would face a lot of rebuilding — let alone if that player was the back-to-back St. Petersburg Times Hillsborough County Player of the Year.
But when Plant senior Amber Li, a Yale recruit, decided to take off her senior season to play in USTA junior tournaments this spring, the Panthers' singles players just ascended one step into their current roles in the hierarchy.
The Panthers, who have finished either first or second at the state tournament the past three years, actually didn't miss a beat without Li.
New No. 1 Blair Martin, who won a 4A state team No. 2 singles title last year as a freshman, took over the lead role easily. Returners Claire Mitchell Andrews and Carol Marie Fraley took over the Nos. 2 and 3 slots, respectively.
And this season's Panthers — under first-year coach and local pro player Jacquelyn Rosen — enter the postseason in a familiar spot: Hillsborough County's favorite to make another deep run to the state tournament.
"I definitely think we can win states," said Martin, ranked No. 3 in the state in the USTA girls 16s rankings. "It's just going to be a little more of a challenge. I truly think we can do really well. I'm very confident in that. Even without Amber we still have an amazing team. Our players play in (junior) tournaments, so they're experienced on a different level."
Plant enters this week's Class 4A-5 district tournament at Hunter's Green Country club with a 12-0 match record. The Panthers have dropped just two matches all season, and that was when Rosen was trying to get reserves some playing time.
"I think I'm fortunate to have a strong group of girls," said Rosen, who played at Saddlebrook and turned pro at 15, but is a first-time high school coach. "We're pretty deep. I think they all came together as a team this year. I just think I have a pretty strong team."
Saying the Panthers are deep might be an understatement. New No. 4 Natalie Franklin and No. 5 Julia Rodriguez, both juniors, are experienced USTA players. Twenty-four girls came out for tryouts this spring and Plant kept 16. Rosen said her top 14 all play juniors.
"It helps that we have all tournament players," said Fraley, the team's sole senior among the top five. "We know what we're doing and that's helps us make sure we don't fold under pressure. It's second nature to us. We've done it so many times.
"That is the main advantage of being USTA tournament players," Fraley said. "We deal with that pressure all year around, so we know when to pick it up a notch."
District tennis schedule
Class 4A-5 at Hunter's Green Country Club
Dates: Monday starting at 8 a.m., Tuesday starting at 9 a.m.
Teams: Alonso, Bloomingdale, Brandon, Freedom, Gaither, Newsome, Plant, Riverview, Tampa Bay Tech, Wharton
Class 4A-7 at Sarasota High
Dates: Monday starting at 8 a.m.; Wednesday starting at 8:30 a.m.
Teams: Bradenton Manatee, North Port, Plant City, Sarasota Riverview, Sarasota
Class 3A-8 at River Hills Country Club
Dates: Monday starting at 8 a.m.; Friday starting at 9 a.m.
Teams: Armwood, Chamberlain, Durant, East Bay, Hillsborough, Jefferson, King, Leto, Sickles
Class 2A-10 at Hunter's Green Country Club
Dates: Wednesday starting at 9 a.m.; Thursday starting at 9 a.m.
Teams: Blake, Steinbrenner, Jesuit (boys), Middleton, Robinson, Spoto, Strawberry Crest
Class A-8 at Hillsborough Community College Tennis Center
Dates: Wednesday starting at 8 a.m.; Thursday starting at 9 a.m.
Teams: Academy at the Lakes, Berkeley Prep, Bishop McLaughlin, Cambridge, Carrollwood Day, Holy Names (girls only), Seffner Christian, Tampa Catholic, Tampa Prep, Weeki Wachee
Note: All district tournaments run for two days