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Panthers refuse to lose

By MIKE READLING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 17, 2002

LAKELAND -- The message to the Plant volleyball team came from Berkeley Prep coach Randy Dagostino and it was loud and clear.

Dagostino's Buccaneers had just lost their Class 2A final to Gainesville P.K. Yonge, and as he walked past the Panther bench before their Class 4A final, he delivered a terse pregame mandate.

"He told us that one Tampa team had just lost and that was terrible," Plant setter Emily Kirkwood said. "He told us we had to go get it. It was all about revenge."

The Panthers started slow but finished strong as they evened the score between the cities of Tampa and Gainesville with a 12-15, 15-3, 15-3 victory over Gainesville High. The title is Plant's second in as many years.

"It feels awesome," senior outside hitter Jessica Smith said. "This was the last game for the seniors. That makes it so much nicer of a win."

Any kind of win seemed in doubt after the first game in which Gainesville, the 2000 state champion, revved itself up after Jerica Carter broke a 12-12 tie with three straight service points. The Hurricanes (30-5) broke out of their huddle between Games 1 and 2 with a large celebration, jumping and spinning around the court as they took their positions.

That didn't sit well with the Panthers, who entered the game ranked 15th in the nation by studentsports.com.

"We used all that energy from them," Smith said.

Added Plant coach Kimi Hellenberg: "We knew it was far from over. There was not a doubt in anyone's mind that we were going to win the second game."

That second game began with a momentum-changing eight straight points thanks in large part to Sarah Kirkwood's powerful jump serve. By the time Gainesville's Kelsey Bowers recorded a kill to earn a sideout, the only thing spinning was the Hurricanes' heads.

"Definitely that service run by Sarah Kirkwood," said Gainesville coach Cindy Boulware when asked about the difference between the first and second games. "We used two timeouts and we still couldn't stop her. That gave them so much momentum we just couldn't stop it."

Sarah Kirkwood played on a severely sprained right ankle which was taped so tight it didn't loosen up until the second game. By then the adrenaline was gushing and she was back to her high-flying, hard-hitting self.

The Panther junior, who walked with a noticeable limp off the court, recorded a season-high 25 kills, including 13 in the final game.

"To not have a state championship to show how good we are would have been terrible," Sarah Kirkwood said.

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