TAMPA – In all three sets of its region semifinal volleyball match against Wharton, Plant took a commanding lead from the start. But twice, midway through the second and third, the Panthers began to falter.
Both times, Wharton went on a run, stringing together big hits and blocks to take a three-point lead. Plant coach Vanja Todorovic called timeouts during these stretches to get his team more composed.
"We're a very mental team, so getting in those little pep talks before games, at timeouts is big for us because sometimes we get too frustrated and we think too much," Plant outside hitter Camryn Vogler said. "We just need to be told, 'You're fine, play your game. Get those passes, and everything else will fall into place.'"
And both times, thanks in large part to Vogler, things did.
In both sets, Plant came back from the time outs a new team, going on runs of its own to take back the lead. The Panthers eventually beat Wharton 3-0 (25-19, 26-24, 25-22), advancing to next week's 8A region final.
All three sets were played extremely close, but in each one, the Panthers found a way to pull through, riding a a confidence that Birdie Frierson said stemmed from their focus on the challenge in front of them.
Though Plant (19-5) beat Wharton twice in the regular season, the Wildcats have been no strangers to the postseason, and matches against the Panthers represented two of their only four losses this season prior to Wednesday's region semifinal.
"We just focus on the respect we have for our opponents, because we've beaten them twice this season, but we knew they were going to come out really strong," Frierson said. "We just had to take our prior knowledge from playing them — because it does make a big difference — and use that to our advantage."
In the first set, Plant errors and a big block from Wharton (16-5) middle hitter Amara Eziakonwa tied the score at 15. After that, the Panthers went on a 10-4 run — which included big kills from Frierson — to close the deal.
Around the same time in the second set, Wharton took a lead when the Panthers had a string of hitting errors, and a few moments later, Wildcat libero Alanis Ortega had a big service ace to give her team its first three-point advantage. They'd hold onto it for a bit, but after a Plant timeout, Vogler had back-to-back kills to help separate the Panthers once again. She'd do the same in the third set, one in which she had five kills to help bring the Panthers out of a hole.
With a win against Wharton, Plant is now just one victory from a third straight trip to the state final four. This year, however, Vogler is expecting a different outcome should they get there.
"We hope to get the ring," she said. "Hitting in practice, getting used to everything and just playing our game. It's going to get us there."