VALRICO — Last year, Plant was eliminated from the playoffs in the region quarterfinals for the second consecutive year, a short slump that ended a five-year state championship run.
Like in 2012, the Panthers are young. But Tuesday, in a 25-22, 25-14, 25-12 road win against district rival Bloomingdale, Plant's team chemistry showed second-year coach Jessica Lamm the height of the Panthers' potential.
"We've just been working very hard this whole season on jelling and coming together and really bringing each other up," she said. "It takes a level of comfort between them to be able to vocalize that, and today was the first day they did it."
The Bloomingdale gymnasium was packed Tuesday, in part because of the cancer awareness night held in conjunction with the district matchup. Panthers senior Kaitlyn Sibson, who finished with 10 kills and 16 digs, said she was pleased her team played with poise despite the large crowd.
The Bulls kept it close with the Panthers in the first game, one that featured eight tie scores. An ace from sophomore Ansley Gould broke the knotted score once and for all, and Plant won four of the final five points.
All night a feisty Plant defense minimized the effect of Bulls junior outside hitter Karissa Rhoades, one of the best players in the county. She finished with nine kills, down from her average of 5.3.
"If we can put some big hands in front of her, that's going to at least slow her down," Lamm said. "Karissa is a good player. She's going to get her kills. We just got to minimize the court that she can hit."
As the Panthers' teamwork grew throughout the night, their control over the games increased. After winning the second game, Plant scored 13 of the first 15 points in the third.
Six-foot-1 middle hitter Katherine Gabler, who led Plant with 12 kills, stepped up big in the final game. And with her benched teammates' fingers in the air, denoting match point, Sibson earned the winning kill.
Plant is 4-0 in the district after beating each district opponent once. Tuesday's match proved to Lamm her young players could use team chemistry to their advantage. It should show everyone else, Sibson said, that the Panthers, despite their inexperience, shouldn't be counted out.
"We came out here to prove that even though we have a young team, we're here to stay and we're here to win," Sibson said.