TAMPA — When a winning kill from Bloomingdale's Karissa Rhoades echoed throughout the Plant gym Wednesday, forcing a fifth game after the Panthers had taken an early two-game lead, coach Jessica Lamm began to have flashbacks.
"Last year, every game was a grind for us," the Plant coach said. "It was like we went to five every game."
A year ago, the young Panthers might have had trouble closing the deal in a decisive fifth-game situation. But against Bloomingdale in a Class 8A, District 7 matchup, Plant showed what a difference a year can make when it came back in the final game to take the match from the visiting Bulls, 25-18, 25-22, 22-25, 18-25, 15-12.
Solid passing kept Plant's middle hitters a threat in the beginning of the match, and Ansley Gould had five of her 13 kills in the first game. Rhoades came into the match averaging 4.7 kills per game — tied for second most in Hillsborough County. The Plant defense held her to a total of five in the first two games.
But as the match wore on, Bloomingdale took Plant (13-5) out of system in its passing. That caused a ripple effect, Lamm said, and the Panthers began to fall apart. Rhoades took control in the third and fourth games, recording 13 of her 20 kills.
"We played really passively," Gould said. "We let them get runs and we let them jump on top of us."
It wasn't until the fifth game, moments from a loss, that the Panthers returned to the version of themselves that began the match. Bloomingdale (13-5) took a 5-2 lead but Plant scored the next nine points on its way to a narrow win.
Kaitlyn Sibson led Plant with 22 kills and 24 digs, while libero MC Shival added 23 digs.
A relieved Lamm said she looks forward to the day when her team plays with the confidence she knows it should have. The Panthers may at times lack the conviction they need to close out matches, but to Gould a close call like Wednesday is an example of how far her team has come.
"I'm not saying we wouldn't have won (last year)," Gould said, "but it definitely would have been much tougher to overcome it."