Panthers reload for another state title run

Plant has replaced some talented veterans with promising newcomers, sustaining a powerful program.

Published September 13, 2005

TAMPA - The Plant volleyball program is a prime example of the rich getting richer. The Panthers won back-to-back Class 4A titles in 2001 and 2002, then moved up to 5A in 2003. That step up didn't slow them down, though, and the Panthers made it a three-peat in '03.

All-everything outside hitter Sarah Kirkwood graduated after that season. Kirkwood was a two-time state tournament MVP and the Gatorade player of the year as senior, joining sister Emily and former Plant teammate Taylor Russo at Virginia last year - and was named ACC freshman of the year.

That would be a crippling blow for most teams, but Plant absorbed the loss with ease thanks to two talented newcomers. Setter Kellie Catanach, the daughter of University of Tampa coach Chris Catanach, stepped in as a freshman and became all-county. Her smooth passing helped Allison Sharp, a starter as a freshman on Berkeley Prep's state title team in 2003, to earn honorable mention all-county as well as fellow outside hitter Jennifer Chamblee.

The only thing missing was a state title as Venice knocked off the Panthers in three straight games in the state semifinals last year.

"They are very hungry, even more so after going that far last season and not winning," second-year Plant coach Leanna Taylor told the Times before the season. "They want to get back and finish what they started."

Plant lost first-team all-county middle blocker Lauren Taylor, a catalyst on the three state champion teams, but replaced her with Christine Williamson, a transfer from Bayshore Christian where she won back-to-back Class A state crowns in 2003-04. Not that the Panthers were hurting in the middle with Kaley Reed returning.

And the best news? (Or worst for opposing teams.) All of those players are juniors, except for sophomore Catanach, who returns to direct the offense.

"Kellie was a freshman last year and has only gotten better," Taylor said. "Plus this is just an enthusiastic team. They're just ready to go out and play."

So far, nothing has changed as the team played a daunting preseason pair in Berkeley Prep and Venice, then opened the regular season with three straight victories.

The Panthers travel to face Class 5A, District 10 rival Middleton at 6:15 p.m. today.