TAMPA — Oh, how the tables have turned.
Plant High, once kryptonite to Palm Harbor University’s loftier playoff aspirations, has been taken care of for the second time in three years.
The Hurricanes left South Tampa with a 3-1 victory Wednesday night that sends them into the Class 8A region semifinals next Tuesday.
“That was a serious battle,” said PHU coach Tara Kuk. “There was nothing easy about that game and both teams showed a lot of character. Plant certainly didn’t give up and they made us earn those points at the end.”
In a match full of critical moments, coming from behind to swipe away Game 1 may have been the greatest of the bunch. PHU trailed by as much as four midway through that set and 22-21 late before two big Naomi Mack kills set up match point. Freshman Emma Strong snuck one in the back left corner to end it two points later.
After Plant and PHU split the next two games, the ‘Canes suddenly found themselves in position to end a tough match in four.
The final game stayed close until the end, but PHU only trailed once, at 3-2. Mack and Strong again stepped up with late-game efforts to seal the victory. Back-to-back Mack kills broke a 21-21 tie, and then Strong set up match point with another back-court kill. The game and match ended with a Plant mishit at the net.
Prior to the Panthers tying the fourth game at 21-all, PHU called a time out to try and keep Plant’s momentum from growing any stronger.
“We were saying that we just needed to pass, we all needed to relax and that we had the game,” PHU libero Ameije Ismaili said of the team’s focus in the huddle.
“I told them they know it’s going to come [another push from Plant], be ready for it and they’ve just got to make the point,” Kuk said of that same moment. “Transition off the dig and it’s going to happen for us.”
It did happen for PHU (20-8) and the ‘Canes now get to host Bloomingdale (18-11) next Tuesday. That matchup comes as a surprise, considering PHU expected to be traveling to Bradenton Manatee if it got past Plant tonight.
“We really wanted to take out Manatee,” said Kuk. Manatee outlasted the ‘Canes during last week’s District 8A-8 championship match in PHU’s gym. “We’re still going to fight just like it was Manatee because that was going to be kind of a grudge match for us.”
“I wanted to play Manatee to get another shot at them because I felt like we knew enough about them to control the game this time and have a better shot,” said Ismaili, the team’s dig leader with 22. “You always want to knock off the number one. They’re district rivals and everything, but now Bloomingdale is someone new we get to take on.”
Regardless of who PHU stands opposite of Tuesday night, it feels good to get by Plant after so many years of disappointment, Kuk said. “It was just so fun to watch and coach and see the girls come through in tough situations.”
Plant v. PHU has been a near postseason constant since 2005. The programs have met seven times in that nine year span, with the Panthers sweeping to 3-0 wins in the first five before PHU finally got them back with a sweep in 2010.
AnnaMarie Huy (15 kills) joined Mack (13 kills) and Strong (8 kills) at the net with an impactful performance. Kuk said Huy stepped up to the challenge after Plant’s defense at the net keyed on trying to shut down Mack and Jazmine Barker.
“They obviously did they’re homework against us,” Kuk said. “They were camped out and Naomi and Jazmine had to do things differently and Naomi did it just in time. [Huy] is just so coachable. We knew what we had to do and I just kept reminding her to keep going for it and that was a huge factor; us getting her more involved in our offense.”
Plant was paced at the net by Ansley Gould’s 16 kills and Katherine Gabler’s five blocks.
The PHU-Bloomingdale region semifinal is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. The winner of that match would take on Winter Park or Vero Beach in the region finals next Saturday.
PHU - 25 – 19 – 25 – 25 --- 3
PHS - 23 – 25 – 21 – 22 --- 1