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No ‘weak link’ as Plant vies for state volleyball title

The Panthers are remarkably balanced and one of two Tampa Bay teams, along with Calvary Christian, still alive for a championship.
The celebration for setter Jennifer Rayburn, right, and her Plant teammates begins moments after the final winning point was fired down Saturday afternoon to seal up a 3-0 victory over Doral Academy. The victory sent Plant to the Class 7A state title match Thursday against Windermere at 6 p.m. in Fort Myers.
The celebration for setter Jennifer Rayburn, right, and her Plant teammates begins moments after the final winning point was fired down Saturday afternoon to seal up a 3-0 victory over Doral Academy. The victory sent Plant to the Class 7A state title match Thursday against Windermere at 6 p.m. in Fort Myers. [ SCOTT PURKS | Scott Purks, Special to the Times ]
Published Nov. 17

TAMPA — When the volleyball is passed to Plant setter Jennifer Rayburn, the defense must brace for a variety of possibilities — all of them troubling.

Waiting to leap high and fire down a kill is one of five athletic Panthers: seniors Lily Frierson, Jordan Moore, Mackenizie Nichols and Reese Friar and freshman Maggie Dostic.

Who will get the ball? No opponent knows.

What is almost assured is that the spike will come with tremendous velocity and from a calculated angle.

“We thrive on getting everybody involved because we have total confidence in each other,” Frierson said. “We don’t have the one star player that we go to every time. What we have is a lot of good players who can get it done.

“We do not have a weak link.”

The proof is in the stats, where three players are within 16 kills of each other for the entire season: Frierson leads with 267, followed by Friar (259) and Dostic (251). Moore and Nichols have added 140 and 122 kills, respectively.

The beneficiary in the setting department is, of course, Rayburn, who has 680 total assists.

Defensively, the Panthers stats are similarly deep and strong with senior libero Sophia Kotsovolos leading in digs with 498, followed by Frierson (309), Dostic (272), Rayburn (168) and sophomore Bella Lee (164).

Plant senior Lily Frierson is the last of four Frierson sisters to play high school volleyball, three for Plant and one for Robinson. All of the Friersons have come close but have fallen just short of winning a state volleyball title.
Plant senior Lily Frierson is the last of four Frierson sisters to play high school volleyball, three for Plant and one for Robinson. All of the Friersons have come close but have fallen just short of winning a state volleyball title. [ SCOTT PURKS | Scott Purks, Special to the Times ]

The best part of it, Kotsovolos said, is that everybody is on the same page, something that has a lot do with first-year coach Sarah Reiss, formerly known as Sarah Kirkwood, who in 2003 helped Plant win a state title before moving on to star for the University of Virginia.

“(Reiss) has been incredible In every way possible,” Kotsovolos said. “She not only is a great volleyball coach, but she cares about all of us so much. We know we can go to her with anything going on in our lives and she will help us. We feel so fortunate to have her as a coach.”

Put it all together and it’s no wonder the Panthers (25-5) are ranked No. 8 in the country by MaxPreps and are playing for the Class 7A state title Thursday in Fort Myers against Windermere (27-3).

Frierson — who along with sisters Emma (Plant grad 2016) and Birdie (2020) have come oh so close to helping the Panthers win state titles before falling short — says this time feels different.

“We are united and confident and we feel prepared,” Frierson said. “All the pieces are in place for us to win this time.”

Kotsovolos said the team got a wakeup call after losing a five setter to Steinbrenner in the district final.

“(Reiss) had a long talk with us about how we had to bring the intensity,” Kotsovolos said. “We took it to heart. When she tells us something we listen.”

Since then, Plant has lost one set in its four combined matches.

“We feel good about where we’re at,” Reiss said. “This group has really come together so well. It’s been fun and now we just have a little more to do.”

If Plant pulls it off, it will make 11 state titles for the Panthers, ranking fourth in Florida High School Athletic Association history behind Fort Lauderdale Cardinal Gibbons (20 titles), Berkeley Prep (16) and Tampa Prep (15). The last Plant state volleyball title came in 2010, which capped a five-year championship run.

Calvary close to title

After surviving one of the toughest volleyball regions in the state (if not the country), Calvary Christian (27-4) has yet another tremendous challenge in Thursday’s Class 3A state title match against Westminster Christian (26-5).

Calvary — which defeated highly-ranked Clearwater Central Catholic (twice), Bishop McLaughlin and Tampa Prep to reach the championship game — is currently ranked No. 17 in the country by MaxPreps. Westminster, however, is ranked No. 7 in the nation.

Calvary is led by senior Noelle Walsh (335 kills), junior Lauren Cairo (287 kills), sophomore setter Taylor Parks (1,030 assists) and sophomore libero Ava Bonin (423 digs).

State volleyball finals

Suncoast Credit Union Arena, Fort Myers. Games Thursday.

3A: Calvary Christian vs. Miami Westminster Christian, 3 p.m.

7A: Plant vs. Windermere, 6 p.m.