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Class 5A volleyball: Plant cruises to third straight title with sweep of Lake Howell

Plant’s Maddie Martin, center, who led the Panthers with 14 kills, drives the ball past Lake Howell blockers during the second game.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Plant’s Maddie Martin, center, who led the Panthers with 14 kills, drives the ball past Lake Howell blockers during the second game.

LAKELAND — Some of them watched the last Plant volleyball dynasty close-up as middle schoolers, daydreaming from the stands about one day wearing the Panthers uniform.

Now they have their own legacy.

This year's Plant volleyball team distinguished itself Saturday, winning a third straight Class 5A state championship with a three-game victory over Orlando Lake Howell, 25-22, 25-15, 25-23, at the Lakeland Center.

It's Plant's sixth state title in eight years — following in the footsteps of the Panthers teams that won three straight in 2001-03.

"We absolutely had nothing to lose," Plant senior outside hitter Danielle Erb said. "We know we have a big target on our back, but we play to win. We try not to let any ball drop. We play every point like its game point. That's our mentality. That's the way we've been coached, and that's the way we've been trained."

Despite a 28-3 record, Plant faced adversity. Junior hitter Maddie Martin, who led the Panthers with 14 kills Saturday, missed nearly half the season with an ankle injury. They took their lumps on the tournament circuit — locally in the Berkeley Premier and nationally at the Nike Challenge in Chicago. And they entered Saturday's title match coming off a lackluster effort in the state semifinal.

But Plant gave perhaps its best defensive effort of the season to win the title.

"Every game, it's awesome to get a good dig or a good serve-receive pass, but when you know you're passing for a state championship, it's kind of a different feel," said junior libero Ali McCurdy, who led the team with 15 digs. "It feels good. It feels awesome, actually."

On offense, the Panthers' plan was to force bad passes to take Lake Howell 6-foot-4 middle hitter Correy Johnson (14 kills) out of the game.

"They were in the zone," said Plant coach Leanna Taylor, who was an assistant on Plant's 2003 team and won three state titles as a player at Tampa Prep. "They anticipated and they hustled, and it paid off in the end. It was contagious."

Despite trading points with the Silverhawks for most of the first and third games, the Panthers made the most out of their attack opportunities. Erb had 13 kills in 26 opportunities, senior Ariel Ley had 10 in 17 chances, and junior Leah Jordan had eight in 16 attacks.

"We were in control of the way we left our mark on Plant and volleyball at Plant," Ley said.

And somewhere in the stands of the Lakeland Center, middle school girls watched history in the making — maybe the next round of future Panthers.

"Wearing the Plant name on my back, it's definitely a respected name," Erb said. "It's fabulous."

Plant def>> Orlando Lake Howell
25-22, 25-15, 25-23

Class 5A volleyball: Plant cruises to third straight title with sweep of Lake Howell 11/22/08 [Last modified: Sunday, November 23, 2008 8:15am]
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