VENICE — Plant volleyball coach Leanna Taylor said she has been thinking about playing Venice since February, because the Panthers knew their path to a third straight Class 5A title would likely have to go through the Indians.
"From Day 1, we were getting ready for this game," Plant outside hitter Maddie Martin said, "because if we didn't win against them, then we don't go to (the state final four in) Lakeland, so this was the deal-breaker. It was always Venice, Venice, Venice."
The Panthers entered Saturday's region final having been rarely challenged the past month — they dropped just one game in 11 matches. This time out, Plant beat the Indians in four games, 25-13, 23-35, 25-15, 25-15, advancing to Friday's state semifinals against Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas at 8 p.m.
"We've all worked hard for this," Plant senior hitter Danielle Erb said. "It's a privilege to go to states, and we're all ecstatic."
Plant (27-3) came into the match with heavy hearts. Many of the seniors were friends with Allyson Faulk, a Plant senior who died in a car crash Friday.
"We played for her," Erb said.
And the Panthers needed a balanced effort to beat Venice (22-9), which had dispatched its first two region opponents easily. The Indians were prepared for outside hitters Martin and Erb, but Plant middle hitters Jordan Dickie (10 kills) and Leah Jordan (12 kills) helped give the Panthers a complete attack.
Erb led the Panthers with 20 kills and three aces. Martin had 13 kills and four aces, while Ariel Ley had 11 kills and two aces.
"They came prepared for Maddie and I," Erb said, "but our middles, our right side, basically everyone, stepped their game up 10 notches. It was amazing."
After closing out the first game with an 11-4 run, Plant lost a 23-22 lead and Game 2. Plant jumped out to a 13-6 lead in winning Game 3, then it closed out Venice by scoring seven of the final nine points.
"For a rebuilding year, this team fought hard," said Venice coach Brian Wheatley, who did not start a senior. "We just came across a better team this year."