TAMPA — Plant players just smile and blush at the mention of it, not wanting to sound boastful.
But the truth is that the Panthers, starting their claim for a third consecutive Class 5A state title, entered Wednesday's region quarterfinal having not been challenged in a month.
Since returning from the Nike Challenge in Chicago in early October, Plant had won nine matches in a row, with their opponents rarely reaching double digits. Coach Leanna Taylor has tried her best to keep her team competitive in practice, but nothing simulates the game whistles. Still, the Panthers flipped that switch Wednesday, fighting off a young, resilient East Lake team 25-16, 25-11, 25-18. "This is usually the point in the season where we need to experience that (adversity) a little bit to increase the fire in their belly," Taylor said.
Junior outside hitter Maddie Martin led the Panthers (25-3) with 15 kills and three aces.
The Eagles (17-9) scored six of the match's first seven points and made a late run in the third game, but the Panthers were too much for a team that starts four freshmen and a sophomore.
"We started strong and finished strong," coach Terry Small said. "The sad thing is that everyone knows in our district you have to go through Plant."