TAMPA — After losing last year's state final, and having that loss simmer in the back of the mind for 364 days, Plant's volleyball team is returning today to the Class 8A state final.
And guess what?
The Panthers are playing the same team, St. Thomas Aquinas, that beat them 3-0 a year ago.
It's a scenario that sits just fine with senior Lexie Atlas, who said unlike last year, "When it was our team's first time playing in a state final (this year,) we feel much more comfortable."
That's mainly because the Panthers not only return a strong group who played in last year's final — including Atlas, Camryn Vogler, Kaylie Butts, Destiny Johnson, Carson Gibbs, Lucy Wilkinson, Bailey Wilson and Sarah Moffitt — but they have added a couple of nice transfers in Paola Laborda (from Indiana) and Kiara Miles (from California).
The results have been nothing short of awesome as Plant has gone 28-3, looking steadily quicker, stronger, smoother and tougher.
In last weekend's state semifinal victory against Tallahassee Leon, the Panthers never showed more grit after coming back from an 0-2 set deficit to win the final three.
The fourth set, in fact, was epic.
That's when, among many highlights, Plant scored six straight points to take an 18-15 lead; lost two set points to make it 24-24; then traded several set points before finally — finally — winning 33-31.
In the fifth set, Plant cruised for a 15-11 victory and was handed a ticket to today's state final at Ocala West Port High against St. Thomas Aquinas, which like Plant also returns many of its great players.
"Oh, yes," Atlas said, "we know what we're up against."
Aquinas (28-2) again brings a taller squad with six girls on the roster listed at 6-foot, one at 5-11 and three at 5-10.
The Panthers don't feature that kind of height, but they counter with superior quickness, athleticism and an uncanny ability to dig. Against Leon, for instance, the Panthers were battling a much taller team, but as the match wore on, Plant's quicker group found ways to get the job done.
"Our team does really well with implementing a game plan and making adjustments," Plant coach Margeaux Sinibaldi said. "This group just plays really well together."
Perhaps most importantly heading into this year's final, Plant has last year's state experience to draw from.
"We are not going (to the state title match) for the experience," Sinibaldi said. "We are going in there to win a state championship."
If Plant pulls it off, it will make 11 state volleyball titles for the Panthers, which ranks fourth in Florida High School Athletic Association history behind Cardinal Gibbons (19 titles), Berkeley Prep (15) and Tampa Prep (15).
The last Plant state volleyball title came in 2010, which capped a five-year championship run.