TAMPA – After finishing 16-3 a season ago and making it to the First-Round Play-In game, Plant is younger and more determined than ever under longtime head coach Jayne Chapman. The team graduated 11 seniors this past season.
Although the Panthers lost to rival Steinbrenner in that game 10-9, the girls are back for more and looking to make noise in the postseason. Sitting at 13-3, their three losses this season came against Bradenton St. Stephen’s Episcopal, Barron Collier and Maryland Bullis.
Plant’s roster is split between upperclassmen and underclassmen as 50 percent of the starters are freshmen or sophomores.
The core seniors are Grace Owens (Manhattan commit), Delaney Turton, Mara Guluzian while Bonnie Sopher is a junior who is a key contributor and someone looking to play in college.
Chapman rotates first year goalies, sophomore Lena Diasti and freshman Cassie Strickler while the defense consists of three freshmen outside of sophomore Kelsey Epstein.
The feel for the team is different something and Chapman thinks that is neat.
“Not only is there good competitiveness, I could look out and watch and realize that is all freshmen,” she said. “That’s pretty cool. That’s the future of Plant lacrosse and it is already on the field. This is the first year that we had more than one or two cuts.”
Chapman said the team had to make seven or eight cuts and she has to acknowledge that they have a great feeder program setup.
“I’m gifted with kids that arrive already with really great fundamentals,” she said.
The key offensive piece for the Panthers is 5’9″ sophomore midfielder Lexi Ashby. Chapman admits that the team has had to dial her back against lesser competition.
As of last Thursday, Ashby had 82 total points which included 51 goals and 31 assists this season. Along with a 62 percent shot percentage and 67 draw percentage, Ashby has been key for this team’s steady play.
The 2019 prospect says she thinks that everyone thought that losing a large senior class, the majority of the team’s starting lineup was a setback.
“Usually it takes a few years to recover from such a huge loss like that,” Ashby said. “However, as the season started everyone began to recognize that losing 11 seniors was more of a challenge than a setback.
“It challenged people who took the back seat last year to really step up this year and take a leading role on the team. Starting spots are now not set in stone and people are constantly trying to prove themselves in practice to earn a position on the field.”
Chapman believes that Ashby will have options when it comes to choosing a Division-I program. This type of thing is a first for this area, the head coach says.
The Plant head coach also said Ashby is going to have continue to work hard, but that someone is going to find her rather than her reaching out to respective programs.
Currently, Cornell, Jacksonville, Virginia Tech, Florida and Furman lead the charge as the college teams showing interest in Ashby.
Ashby says last year that she learned that the only way to win is to play collectively as a team.
“If even one person is having an off game, it affects the rest of the team so it’s extremely important to pump each other up and say positive things to one another so that everyone is feeling their best mentally in order to play their best physically,” she said.
Chapman pointed to Ashby’s speed and stick skills as her biggest attributes on the field. She called Ashby one of the most talented and hardest working people she knows.
“She’s that kid on the wall and running extra,” Chapman said. “She would run home a couple miles and is a crazy hard working kid. For someone that wants to play Division-I, she’s got the tools to do it.”
Ashby said her biggest asset is her strength.
“I’m a very aggressive and strong person so no one can knock me over,” she said. “However, I want to work on dodging as that’s probably my biggest weakness.”
Starting her lacrosse career in 5th grade, Ashby fell in love with the game at a young age because her dad played the sport collegiality and she was able to talk strategy and practice with him.
“However, as I got older and more experienced my love for the game grew because I discovered how creative a game lacrosse is,” Ashby said. “Not just because of the different stick tricks and trick shots you can do but because everyone has their own unique style of play. Lacrosse is a game where every time the whistle blows, you have to use your own judgment to figure out how you’re going to beat your opponent. There are no routes to run, and I love that about it.
“Also, the lacrosse community is full of amazing people. I’ve played a lot of sports and I’ve never met people as nice and so in love with the sport as lacrosse players. I also love the excitement that upcoming games bring and the satisfying feeling of making a cool play, scoring a goal or just successfully transitioning the ball from defense to offense.”
Going to Plant gives their teams the chance to be able to play in Dad’s Stadium, one of the best places in all of Florida.
“We don’t usually have that big of a fan base but we definitely do a good job at pumping each other up without the help of fans,” Ashby said. “The field holds so much school pride in it and we always seem to perform better at home games.”
The Panthers wrap up the regular season at Steinbrenner on Wednesday. Plant will open as the top seed with a 5-0 record in District 15. The district playoffs start next Tuesday at Tampa Catholic with the final coming on Thursday.
Then the First-Round Play-In game will take place on Thursday, April 13.
Chapman called the season great to be able to see so many teams from the area become more competitive.
“We’ve had close games with Newsome, Sickles and Steinbrenner this season and we’re excited to see what happens in the postseason,” Chapman said. “It goes without saying that my players and coaches want to go farther than we’ve ever gone before.”
After the success Plant was able to accomplish in previous years, especially a season ago, the young core is coming together. Ashby, Turton and Guluzian each scored goals a year ago in that first round game.
Chapman has the unit to make a deep playoff push so it good that everyone gets along.
“It’s rare in my world that we have a high school team with girls that don’t like drama,” she said. “They want to make a run.”
The chance is there for Plant and now this is where the hard work and dedication comes into play.
Jake Perper is the founder of Prep Sports Scouting. Make sure to follow along for all the updates on Twitter: @JakePerper.