Panthers face new challenge in Class 6A
TAMPA - When she took over as head coach in 2004, Plant volleyball coach Leanna Taylor could always calculate her team's road to the Class 5A state volleyball tournament. "At this point last year, I could have told you what the final four would be," Taylor said. But after winning three consecutive 5A titles (2006, 2007, 2008), the Panthers face a new challenge. Because of the growing student population at Plant, the Panthers will play in 6A this season, the largest classification in the state. "This year, I was very excited to get the book to see how it's all laid out and see who would be the Venice (region final) match," said Taylor, the 2008 Florida Dairy Farmers Coach of the Year. "The final four, I could say it'll be Timber Creek but then some say they're down (this) year. I'm not quite sure yet. I'm definitely doing my homework. I don't want to get caught off guard."Orlando Timber Creek won the 6A title last year, but graduated 2008 Florida Dairy Farmers Miss Volleyball and Florida Gatorade Volleyball Player of the Year Jessica Yingling, now a freshman at the University of Tampa. Still, the Panthers have state title No. 9 on their minds. Seniors Maddie Martin and Ali McCurdy hope to graduate from Plant as four-time state champions. As freshmen in 2006, McCurdy and Martin helped Taylor win her first title. McCurdy started at libero while Martin came off the bench on a senior-driven team. Every year since, the two All-State players have dedicated their season to winning a state title for the seniors on their team. Now, it's their turn. "My freshman year, I feel like it was just the other day," said Martin, who is committed to two-time national defending champion Penn State. "I thought it was the coolest thing to be in that gym at Lakeland (Center). And now we've done that three times." "I'm excited for the change," said McCurdy, who is verbally committed to Duke. "I think it'll be good, the new competition. We can't go into (the season) just saying, 'Hey, we won 5A.' There are new teams we have to prove ourselves to." Martin sat out the first few weeks of the 2008 season with an ankle injury, but returned midway through the season to contribute 198 kills, 47 aces and 25 blocks. McCurdy led the Panthers in digs last season with 454. The Panthers also return setter Becca Howard (774 assists in 2008) and outside hitter Leah Jordan (160 kills, 68 blocks). "Some people don't even win one (title) while they're in high school," McCurdy said. "The fact that we can compete for four is such a privilege," Martin said.
Reporter Nick Williams can be reached at (813) 259-7851.