© St. Petersburg Times, published November 10, 2002
SARASOTA -- It's hard to imagine a state champion playing as an underdog, but that's what Plant is trying to do.
The Panthers are headed back to the state tournament after easily defeating Sarasota Booker and Estero on Saturday.
Plant (31-2) is ranked No. 2 in the latest Class 4A poll behind Merritt Island, the team it beat in last year's final. This galls the team and coach Kimi Hellenberg.
"Oh, I love it," Hellenberg said of the poll snub. "That's how we were last year."
However, she admits that this year's team is "stronger, more mature and more experienced." It didn't take long for a young Booker squad to learn that.
In their semifinal against Plant, the host Tornadoes (22-9) looked as if they might give the Panthers some trouble.
Judit Vass blocked Sarah Kirkwood on consecutive plays to tie it 2-2. But then Kirkwood went on a tear, scoring five of the next six points as Plant pulled away en route to a 15-6, 15-3 win.
In the other semifinal, Estero (18-7) pulled off the upset against Lake Gibson (24-4), winning 15-3, 13-15, 15-10.
The Wildcats also hung tough early in the final against Plant, but Jessica Smith came alive for eight kills and Maggie Ramm served eight straight points in a 15-4, 15-1 rout.
"I haven't gotten that many chances to hit a lot this year, but I was up against sort of a short blocker, and we tried to take advantage," Smith said.
"I think we're a lot more team-oriented this year. We feel a little like underdogs, since (Merritt Island) is No. 1.
"We feel like it gives us a little more of a challenge."
The Panthers' underdog ploy is going to need some work. Merritt Island didn't make it to the state tournament. The Mustangs fell in the Region 4 final Saturday 19-17, 15-6 to Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas, Plant's opponent at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Lakeland Center.