TAMPA — In volleyball, it's the hitters who draw the oohs and ahhs, the setters who get the high fives — but the liberos do the dirty work.
And in building a state championship team, you can't win without a strong one.
At this weekend's state volleyball tournament at the Lakeland Center, Plant will play for its fourth consecutive state title, a streak accomplished only two other times in Hillsborough County. Over the past four seasons, the Panthers are 111-8.
And a main reason the Panthers can make history this weekend is because of senior libero Ali McCurdy.
"She's all over the floor," Plant coach Leanna Taylor said. "I'm still in awe of her after all these years. She's like a superhero."
Plant's superhero comes in a 5-foot-6 package in a game dominated by 6-footers.
A starter since her freshman year, McCurdy, who this week signed a national letter of intent to play at Duke, is the Panthers' quarterback, turning defense into instant offense. And she does it so well — she averages 6.3 digs a game, including five matches when she averaged double-digit digs — she hardly makes it look difficult.
"You are as good as your first touch," Taylor said. "She just makes everything happen. She has the first call. She tells the person who is going to play it, otherwise it's her ball. She communicates who else is going to play first contact. Otherwise there's the understanding that she's going to get everything on the court."
Sometimes it results in sore legs and banged up knees, but for McCurdy, that's the beauty of it.
"At times it does get painful, but to know that basically the game is based on the first pass, the first contact, the first serve receive or pass is in your control, that's a good feeling," she said.
The sport might live at the net, but over the past four years McCurdy has forced teams to alter their game plans.
"You don't serve to her," Brandon coach Amy Watson said. "You can't. That's what I tell my girls. You don't want her getting the first hit. She reads the court so well and she has such great range."
This weekend, McCurdy and fellow fourth-year starter Maddie Martin can end their high school careers knowing nothing but championships.
"We're just blessed to be able to get three straight championships," McCurdy said. "Some people never have the opportunity to get one."
The quest for four
Plant can become just the third Hillsborough County volleyball program to win four straight state titles. A look at the county's top state championship runs:
|Berkeley Prep||6||'88-'93||Randy Dagostino|
|Tampa Prep||6||'80-'85||Carol Chalu|
|Berkeley Prep||3||'97-'99||Randy Dagostino|
|Tampa Prep||3||'96-'98||Carol Chalu ('96,'97), Paul McAdoo ('98)|
State volleyball tournament
At Lakeland Center
Class 3A. Berkeley Prep (27-3) vs. Jacksonville Bolles (17-7), 2 p.m.
The Buccaneers own 12 state titles, but they haven't won since 2003. The good news for Berkeley is that it won't have to face Lake Highland Prep this time around. The Highlanders ended Berkeley's season the past five years. The Bucs enter the state tournament after a four-set win over region rival Bishop Verot. Bolles has been to the state tournament in 11 of the past 12 years, but hasn't won a state title since 1989.
Class 5A. Newsome (18-7) vs. Stuart Martin County (29-1), 8 p.m.
The Wolves have gone from district runnerup to the final four in coach Kate Correa's first season. Martin County, which boasts player of the year candidate and 6-foot-5 Wisconsin recruit Elise Walch (5.8 kills a game), will be Newsome's toughest task yet. Its only loss this year came against Plant at the Gator Town Classic. Still, Newsome has proved it belongs with scrappy play.
Class 3A championship, 4:30
Class 5A championship, 7
Class 2A. Tampa Prep (16-10) vs. Tallahassee Maclay (18-5), noon
Two of the state's most prolific volleyball programs meet. Tampa Prep owns a county-best 15 state titles, and has been to the state tournament for the 10th straight year, but the Terps haven't won a state title since 2004. Maclay is also on its 10th straight state tournament trip, but it has been eliminated in the semis each time. Maclay owns 31 state berths overall, second best in the state.
Class 6A. Plant (27-1) vs. Miami Ferguson (17-2), 2
Plant's season would be a disappointment if it doesn't end with the Panthers' raising their fourth consecutive state crown. The Panthers have won six state crowns in eight years, and this team might be the best overall in that span. A band of all-stars at each position, Plant hasn't dropped a game since Oct. 3, a 35-set string. This is the first state title trip for Ferguson, which has dropped just eight games all season.
Class 2A championship, noon
Class 6A championship, 5