TAMPA – Plant has dominated its Class 8A, District 8 opponents this season. Prior to Wednesday’s district tournament semifinal against Steinbrenner, the Panthers won all six matches and 18 of 19 games against district foes.
That trend did not change. Top-seeded Plant defeated No. 4 seed Steinbrenner 25-22, 25-17, 25-21 to advance to Thursday’s district final. The Panthers will play No. 3 seed Wharton for the district championship. The Wildcats (15-3) defeated No. 2 seed Wiregrass Ranch 25-23, 26-24, 25-16. Both teams are guaranteed a spot in next Wednesday’s region tournament. Plant advanced to the Class 8A state final last year.
Plant, which played in the opening match, started slowly. Steinbrenner (12-6) jumped out to an 11-7 lead after a kill by Maggie Miller. The Panthers turned it on from there and tied the score at 12. With the score 15-15, Plant (16-5) scored five straight, thanks to two straight blocks by Elizabeth Price and a kill from Sarah Moffit. The first game was closed out on a kill from Ava Friar.
Plant trailed only once in the second game (1-0) and built an early 8-2 lead. The Warriors never got closer than three points and found themselves in a 2-0 hole.
In the third game, Steinbrenner hung around throughout and cut Plant’s lead to 22-21 late. But two kills by Camryn Vogler helped close out the game, and the match. Vogler led Plant with 11 kills. Birdie Frierson added eight kills.
Steinbrenner was led by Jacqui Ramsey, who had 13 kills. Miller had five.
“(Steinbrenner) really gave us a run for our money,” Plant coach Vanja Todorovic said. “They did well from the beginning and played very confidently. Our girls responded very well. They had a tough weekend and just one day off. We ended up picking it up when we had to.”
While the Wharton-Wiregrass Ranch match was also 3-0, it was much closer. The Bulls won the regular-season match against Wharton 3-2, and it looked like that might happen again. The first game had 11 ties including 23-23 when Wildcats’ outside hitter Jeannette Henderson converted a kill. Two errors by Wiregrass Ranch allowed Wharton to close out the first game.
The second game was just as close. In fact, it was 23-23 again and just like the first game Wharton (was able to get the win. With the score tied at 24, the Bulls had two more errors that allowed the Wildcats to take a 2-0 lead.
“The last time we played them it was very much a mental game and it was tonight, too,” Wharton coach Eric Barber said. “It wasn’t pretty, but it was gritty, grind-it-out volleyball. They have a very athletic team and they kept us out of system. It came down mental toughness to get those final points. Last time, they had the mental toughness.”
The two close wins seemed to energize the Wildcats. They broke out to an 8-2 lead and never trailed in putting the game away. The closest Wharton could get was 17-14.
Amara Eziakonwa led the Wildcats with 11 kills. Henderson added six. Wiregrass Ranch (20-6) was led by Jaizah Anderson, who 11 kills. Caroline Eichelberger had nine and Destanie Aydt had eight.