LAKELAND — Chasing four straight titles had its challenges for the Plant volleyball team.
From its first practice this season, the team has had a bull's-eye on its back. Plant was the match opponents circled on the schedule. Even those who donned the Plant uniform found it tough — the pressure, the grind, and eventually, the reality of the end.
Still, the Panthers had to escape to other area codes — tournaments in Gainesville and Chicago — to break a sweat. And they hit the Lakeland Center with a buzz. They brought a crowd and a reputation (No. 7 in Prepvolleyball.com's national ranking). And in their Class 6A state final Saturday, they got what they wanted — a match.
The Panthers completed their anticipated four-peat, beating Winter Park in four sets, 25-13, 22-25, 25-19, 25-13, to finish 29-1.
"A dream season," Plant coach Leanna Taylor said.
In winning three straight Class 5A titles, the Panthers never dropped a championship match set. And the Panthers haven't allowed more than 20 points — let alone lose a set — since returning from the Asics Challenge in Chicago on Oct. 3.
But even when Winter Park took the second set, it didn't stop the Panthers.
"It's all under a magnifying glass," said senior setter Becca Howard, who had 48 assists. "Yeah, that's pressure, but that's when we play our best. You want to shine, and we want to show everyone how good we are."
A senior class, with three players who won't know anything but state titles, led the Panthers. Penn State-bound hitter Maddie Martin had 22 kills and 11 digs. Libero Ali McCurdy, a Duke recruit, tallied 23 digs. And middle hitter Leah Jordan had six kills and dominated on the block.
"It's definitely more exciting playing a team that gives you more competition because it feels like you earned it," Martin said. "We knew they weren't going to give it to us."
In between there was the promise of more success in outside hitter Alex Johnson, a third-year varsity player who just cracked the starting lineup this year as a junior. She had 20 kills.
"I'm really proud of the girls' mental toughness today," Taylor said. "They stayed focused and accepted the pressure. At times it wasn't the best game, but they kept going and kept the course."
Bum knees, sore shoulders aside, the Panthers got it done — and literally left their sweat on the court.
"What sticks in my mind the most was that fourth game, where everybody is on the ground," McCurdy said. "That's what teamwork is. It sounds hokey, but when I saw that, it kind of all came together.
By now, the Panthers are used to their celebratory road tour — parade invites, invitations to Tampa Yankees games from George Steinbrenner, calls from the mayor.
And like past years, the state trophy and the game ball will be passed among the players like hockey's Stanley Cup.
After a season of living with the hype, the Panthers can finally enjoy the title of champions.
"This will continue, this party," Taylor said. "All year."