A Class 5A semifinal berth is more than anyone but the Panthers anticipated.
TAMPA - Plant girls basketball coach Carrie Mahon told the Panthers at the beginning of the season that she expected them to set their sights on the state tournament and the Panthers did what they were told.
Never mind that the Panthers don't have the most talented lineup in the county, let alone the state.
Never mind that in 78 years, Plant has never had a girls basketball team get to the region semifinals, let alone the state semifinals.
Never mind that Plant has not been state-ranked all season and is coming off a 15-10 season.
Mahon told the Panthers they could do it and that was good enough for them.
"They believe whatever I say," Mahon said. "And I don't know why."
In her second year, Mahon has spent much of her time convincing the Panthers they are much better than they think they are. In the past month, she has tried to pound the idea into them that one more playoff game simply isn't enough.
Getting her players to realize it has been as easy as getting them through one more practice, one more game. Getting others to buy it has been nearly impossible.
"Everyone has been telling us we don't have a chance, we're not good enough, we're going to lose," Plant sophomore Eriqah Butler said. "People in the halls, in the newspapers. ... No one has had any faith in us."
No big deal to the Panthers. They got comfortable with being somewhat overlooked, with playing before tiny crowds at their home games.
"Sometimes," sophomore Porscha Williamson said, "you don't want to be noticed too much."
Against Haines City in the region final on Saturday, the Panthers walked into their gym to the biggest home crowd they had ever seen. Plant never had unfolded the bleachers on both sides of the gym, and it was strange seeing the home side fill up with actual fans, not just parents and siblings.
The Panthers didn't disappoint as they battled through the closest game they've played in the postseason, a 42-41 victory. As players from both sides grappled for the ball on the floor in the final seconds, the look on the Panthers' faces was priceless.
This was amazing. This was awesome. And this was far better than they ever imagined.
Players and fans rushed to the floor to form a frenzied pile in the center of the court, and Mahon was bombarded with hugs and handshakes. Parents snapped pictures. Small children were screaming and jumping around. It was a historic moment for Plant High, and everyone seemed thrilled to be a part of it.
"Words can't explain it," Eriqah Butler said after the game. "We're just so excited."
Plant enters Wednesday's Class 5A semifinals as a stranger to the tournament. Against Fort Lauderdale Dillard (27-3), which came out of perhaps the toughest region in 5A and has been to state six times (the last time in 2000), the Panthers need all the support they can get.
Two of the Panthers' top scorers, Butler and Williamson, are underclassmen, but it's the seniors who have held the team together throughout the playoffs. Senior guard Lauren Cimino's outside shooting has been one of the biggest factors in close-game rallies this season, and Megan Schroder and Ashley Carrington have been reliable scorers for the last few years.
Each Plant player took turns cutting down the net after the victory on Saturday, and it was certainly a moment to remember. Yes, the Panthers set the state tournament as a goal, but as state hopefuls Tampa Bay Tech and Cambridge can attest, getting there has been an elusive feat for Hillsborough County teams.
Now Mahon must keep the Panthers moving forward, which is a tough task after her players have accomplished more than anyone had imagined. She must keep them sharp and serious, despite all of the buzz and recognition at school. She must keep them focused on what will certainly be the toughest opponent they've faced all season.
Most of all, she must convince them that at the state tournament, records and rankings don't matter.
The Panthers have achieved a lot, but they're not done.
"When we won the region quarterfinal, everyone was saying, "This is history, this is history,"' Mahon said. "I've been trying to get it in their heads that it's not history yet. The history is yet to come."