TAMPA — For Plant, the most difficult part of preparing for its march for a fourth consecutive state championship might be muddling through a batch of unfamiliar opponents.
The Panthers' past three titles came in Class 5A, so their move to 6A offers an entirely new group of teams. And for Panthers coach Leanna Taylor and her team, they honestly didn't know what to expect from Countryside in their region quarterfinal Wednesday.
"I see names I don't even know," Taylor said. "I have to go and do research and see what clubs they play for. Is the competition good? What does their record mean?"
The Cougars advanced to the 6A state tournament last year but lost four starters, including All-American Madison Truluck.
And even though the Cougars gave Plant some of its toughest competition this season, the Panthers easily advanced, 25-10, 25-12, 25-16, setting up a date with Palm Harbor University next week.
"The teams are different, but I think it's still the same mind-set," Plant senior libero Ali McCurdy said. "We still need to play our best and work our way through every match regardless of the team. If we play our game, we'll do well."
Senior outside hitter Maddie Martin led the Panthers with 19 kills, eight digs and five aces. Junior outside hitter Alex Johnson added 10 kills and nine digs while McCurdy led Plant (25-1) with 13 digs. Becca Howard tallied 40 assists.
"We were working for our points tonight," Martin said.
Countryside (23-4) was outsized and overmatched, even though the some of the Cougars knew Plant well. Seniors Davionna DiSalvatore and Nicole Dunn play club ball with Martin, McCurdy and three other Plant players.
"It's just the luck of the draw," Countryside coach Kaylyn Bayly said. "If we had won our district, we wouldn't have been in this situation anyway. We had to play great and they didn't have to play their best match. They have a great team.
"They don't have 50 million state titles for no reason."