There was nothing anyone could say to make Plant feel good about how last season ended.
Ahead 2-1 in the region final, the Panthers were one point away from returning to the final four to defend their 7A state title. Instead, they let a 24-20 lead slip away against Venice in the fourth set.
The momentum – and eventually the match – were gone.
On the bus ride home, the players were engulfed in silent misery.
“It was torture,” Plant junior Maggie Dostic said.
The painful memories of a match that got away served as a powerful motivator. The players, nearly all of whom returned, drew closer. They zeroed in on their goal.
On Wednesday, they were back in the region final, once again playing the Indians.
This time, there would be no lapses.
In front of a raucous home crowd, the Panthers atoned for last season – and got some measure of a revenge – with a 25-19, 20-25, 25-15, 25-19 victory.
Plant (23-3) will face Doral Academy (23-7) in the state semifinals, held at Polk State College, on Nov. 10 at 7 p.m.
“This was more motivating than anything else,” Panthers senior Bella Lee said of facing Venice again in Wednesday’s region final. “We trained so hard for this.”
There were some adjustments Plant made during the season, chief among them dealing with a new coach. This summer, Mckensie Harold took over for Sarah Reiss, who left to become the coach at Berkeley Prep.
Mckensie was an assistant for the Panthers in 2020 when the current seniors were freshman, She also was familiar with many others after training them in the offseason.
The transition was smooth. Plant finished the regular season as the top ranked in the state, regardless of classification, according to the Florida High School Athletic Association power rankings.
Once the playoffs started, the Panthers were consumed with the notion of beating Venice. Sure, there were two other matches to win before reaching the region final. But all the preparation was focused on one potential opponent: the Indians.
For the past three weeks, Plant spent hours watching video, devising drills, analyzing strengths and weaknesses of that team that knocked the Panthers out of the playoffs a year ago.
In the days leading up to that anticipated matchup, Harold had the seniors talk to the players about the euphoria of winning a state title two years ago and the agony of coming up short last season.
Everything came together on Wednesday. Lee dove with reckless abandon, making sure the volleyball never touched the court. Maggie Dostic, thanks to crisp passes from her younger sister, Sophie, was on target with kills. Lara Matta was sharp on serves. Kaylee Peper, Kylee Roberts and Samantha Karjala thwarted attacks at the net.
Ahead 2-1, the Panthers were clinging to a 16-14 lead in the fourth and potentially deciding set.
Unlike last season, there was no letdown. Plant went on a 6-1 run to take control of the set and the match.
“We were super motivated,” Lee said. “It’s amazing to see how much the players, and the community, came together for this.”