FORT MYERS — Plant was not going to be denied in Thursday’s Class 7A volleyball final against Windermere. Not when Windermere led after three sets, and not when one of the Panthers’ key players, Reese Friar, twisted an ankle late in the match.
“There was no way anything was going to stop us,” Friar said. “Once we got the momentum going our way, that was it.”
The momentum shift came in an avalanche in the fourth set, as Plant swept over Windermere and seemed to leave the Wolverines rattled, ultimately leading to a dramatic 23-25, 25-22, 22-25, 25-13, 15-9 victory.
“We said, ‘This is it, we’re truly bringing all our energy,’ and when we did, (Windermere) just fell flat,” Plant senior Lily Frierson said. “(Windermere) couldn’t answer the energy that we were just throwing in their faces. We were erupting with energy, and they were deflating. You could see it on their faces.”
The surge continued into the final set, as Plant (26-5) appeared on its way to running away with the match.
But then Friar, who had caught fire with a series of sizzling kills, stumbled, fell and rolled her left ankle with the Panthers up 7-4. She got up and limped around a bit as first-year coach Sarah Reiss called timeout.
As Friar gingerly tested the ankle, Reiss turned to freshman Kaylee Peper, who had not played one point in the match. “You better get warmed up,” she said. Peper’s eyes “got big as saucers,” Reiss said.
When Friar saw that Peper was warming up, she started jumping up and down, as well. Her teammates cheered. Yes, the ankle hurt, but not enough to keep Friar out.
“I was going to play,” Friar said with a big ice pack on her ankle after the match. “There was no way I wasn’t going to play.”
Plant reeled off seven straight points, including a couple of kills by Friar, and the victory was all but sealed.
Friar (15 kills) and Frierson (17 kills, 23 digs) weren’t the only bright lights for Plant. Freshman Maggie Dostic (a match-high 21 kills), Sophia Kotsovolos (18 digs), setter Jennifer Rayburn (52 assists), Mackenzie Nichols (seven kills, three blocks) and Jordan Moore (four kills, four blocks) also played significant roles.
The victory ended a long, sometimes frustrating state title drought for the Panthers, who hadn’t won one since 2010. Plant now ranks fourth in Florida High School Athletic Association history with 11 state volleyball titles, trailing only Cardinal Gibbons (20), Berkeley Prep (16) and Tampa Prep (15).
For Frierson and Reiss, the emotion of the victory runs deep with history.
Frierson is the last of three sisters to play volleyball for Plant — sister Emma graduated from Plant in 2016 and Birdie in 2020 — but Lily is the only one to have a gold medal draped around her neck.
“I feel like this is for all my sisters and for all the players who came so close in those years before,” Frierson said. “I got all these messages wishing me luck and saying they believed this was the team that was finally going to do it. It feels so good to get it done that it’s just amazing.”
Reiss, known as Sarah Kirkwood when she helped Plant win a state title as a player in 2003, said she returned to Plant because she wanted to “give something back.”
“I wanted this for these girls and for this school,” Reiss said. “I believed in this team so much. I believed they could do it, and I wanted them to believe as well. (Thursday), they did it. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”