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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
TAMPA - It seemed that every time a ball shot down from the hand of a Clearwater player - often with excessive force - it shot right back up during last Thursday's Class 5A region final.
Who was it that kept popping those balls off the floor?
Meet Plant freshman Ali McCurdy.
Then, after it was popped in the air and all-state setter Kellie Catanach flicked it with deft touch, Plant's lanky No. 7 often swooped around and smacked a spike of her own. A spike that usually wasn't returned.
Who was that with the vicious hit?
Meet Plant freshman Maddie Martin.
"They came gift-wrapped like angels to us," Plant coach Leanna Taylor said. "You look at them and think, they don't look like freshmen, and they sure don't play like freshmen. But, wow, when you look at the roster, you think, they are freshmen.
"It's incredible to think how they came in and made a huge contribution right away. You hardly ever see that."
McCurdy and Martin shrugged at their coach and, for a split second, giggled like, well, freshmen.
Question: Were you comfortable stepping into this high-powered team, even though you were freshmen?
"I was a bit nervous at first," Martin said, "but then in no time I was completely comfortable."
Martin looked at McCurdy. Agree?
"Yes," McCurdy said, "I was totally at ease. Everybody on the team made me feel relaxed."
Taylor said their comfort zone has a lot to do with the fact they are "extremely athletic, smart and mature. Way beyond their years."
Taylor then addressed McCurdy's feet, which she said are "like nothing I've ever seen (in high school). Sometimes she moves them so fast I can't even see them."
As for Martin's high-wire, spiking act, Taylor said, "Maddie is about as strong and powerful as any freshman I've ever seen."
McCurdy, 15, said part of her agility might come from practicing gymnastics from the time she was 5. Martin, 14, said she has always played sports, whether soccer or volleyball, and that might have something to do with her advanced ability.
Taylor said look at the fact McCurdy and Martin have older athletic brothers. McCurdy's brothers played varsity sports at Plant; Martin's brothers, Cam and Luke, are on Plant's football team, which, hosts a first-round playoff game Friday against Seminole Osceola.
"I'd say my brothers don't cut me any slack," Martin said. "I guess they keep me tough."
Friday night at 6 inside the Lakeland Center, Martin and McCurdy are expected to step up like they have all season when Plant (26-2) takes on Tallahassee Leon (27-3) in a Class 5A semifinal.
"Right now, not at all. Maybe I'll get a little nervous before we step onto the floor, but I really think I'll be more excited than nervous," Martin said.
"I think we're ready," McCurdy said.
Catanach, a veteran junior, sat a few feet from her freshmen teammates and said, "I know they're ready. I know I don't have to worry about them one bit."