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Unbeaten, unselfish Plant girls ready for next soccer test

The Panthers will travel to national No. 2 Bartram Trail on Friday for a Class 7A state semifinal.
Plant sophomore Kallyn McKinney, No. 10, is helping lead the Panthers into a Class 7A state semifinal Friday night. [SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times]

TAMPA — Before the season ever started, Plant High’s girls soccer team knew it would be pretty good, if not very good.

But this good? Undefeated, 18-0-2, ranked No. 4 in Class 7A and No. 28 nationally by MaxPreps, good?

“We didn’t think that far ahead,” Plant coach Alex Venegas said. “We were just trying to get better every step of the way.”

And did they ever.

Sure, the Panthers had some close calls, and they didn’t always play awesome, but with togetherness, thoughtfulness and resounding unselfishness, they have found a way to never lose a game this season.

And now on Friday night in a Class 7A state semifinal, these Panthers have a chance to pull off something spectacular: Defeat the nation’s No. 2-ranked team, Bartram Trail (19-1-3), and advance to the state final.

“We are so looking forward to it,” junior defender Lauren Webster said. “We want to play against the best.”

Plant keeper Lexi Evangelista has been outstanding all season, recording 13 shutouts along the way. [SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times]

Venegas said no matter what happens, you can be assured of a few things: The Panthers will be on the same page, they will be unpredictable (switching up offenses and defenses), they will be confident, and they will enjoy the moment.

“I know this because they are such a special group,” said Venegas, who the past 20 years has coached everything from youth leagues to colleges. “This group is so special that they have made the best soccer experience of my life. It simply doesn’t get any better than this. I am truly living the dream.”

He runs down the list of his players — Webster, junior forward Victoria Cura, junior defender Claire Rain, sophomore midfielder Kallyn McKinney, junior forward Quinn Ryan and junior goalkeeper Lexi Evangelista to name a few — and has only great things to say about all of them, as players and as people.

“They are always eager to learn and to perfect every detail,” Venegas said. “They want to work together to make the team as good as it can be.”

Said Webster said: “We all know that the only way we can win is if we work together. Together is the only way we can do it.”

Plant junior defender Claire Rain is part of a Panthers team that has yet to lose this season. [SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times]

That unselfish attitude has translated into 22 different players scoring this season and several players, like Cura, suddenly jumping into the spotlight for a big moment (see Cura, who has recently gotten more playing time, scoring the only goal in a 1-0 region final victory over Newsome).

Weaknesses? This team really doesn’t seem to have one.

“In the beginning of the season we did have to work some things out,” Webster said. “But the bond was always there, and then as the season went on it got stronger and stronger, and now we’re like a family. We care about each other. We trust each other. We appreciate everything.”

State girls soccer semis

Games 7 p.m. Friday.

7A: No. 1 Plant at No. 1 Bartram Trail

5A: No. 1 Land O’ Lakes at No. 1 Ponte Vedra

2A: No. 1 Fort Lauderdale Westminster Academy at No. 1 Shorecrest