STUART — Plant went into Friday’s Class 4A state meet with arguably the most talented girls team ever assembled from Tampa Bay and one of the fastest and deepest teams in the country.
The Panthers’s stable of talent began with senior Morgan Tankersley, who as a junior was named the national swimmer of the year by Swimming World magazine. And after Tankersley, the Panthers followed with several more state-final veterans and a couple of the country’s fastest freshmen.
But Plant fell well short of taking the team title, which a girls team from Hillsborough County has never won since the state meet began in 1920.
Gainesville Buchholz was deeper and faster at Friday’s meet, which was among the overall fastest, if not the fastest, in the 97 years of the state championships.
The proof was in the stat sheet, which included Buchholz setting five state records. And of the 11 swim events, eight marks are now held by individuals and/or relays who competed Friday.
Finally, after all that blazing speed left the pool, the team points added up spectacularly for the top two: Buchholz 360.5 points; Plant 273.
No Panther was tougher than Tankersley, who defended her state title in the 500 free (4:44.75, almost seven seconds off her state record) and finished second to Buchholz junior Isabel Ivey, who might make an argument for national swimmer of the year. Tankersley, who still holds the state record in the 200 free (1:44.31), finished Friday’s event in 1:46.75, 2.07 seconds behind Ivey.
"I didn’t swim as fast as I wanted (partly due to some early-season breathing issues and a hectic recruiting season), but I still had a great meet and all my teammates also had a great meet," said Tankersley, who last year set records in the 100, 200 and 500 free. "So I feel good. I’m happy."
On Friday, she also helped the Panthers’ 400 (3:24.16) and 200 free relay teams to second-place finishes; the latter in a blazing time of 1:34.35, but still off Buchholz’s state-record time of 1:31.66.
In the first race, the 200 medley relay, the Panthers also took second, finishing in 1:45.89, but again well behind the state-record pace of Buchholz (1:42.34).
Individually on the podium, Panther freshmen Ella Marlow and Ella Bathurst finished sixth and ninth in the 50 free, respectively. Bathurst also finished fourth in the 100 free (51.02) and Marlow seventh in the 100 butterfly (55.40.
Then in the 100 breaststroke, Plant got podium points from junior Caroline Rossi (fourth, 1:05.44) and freshman Morgan Austrich (sixth, 1:06.97).
One of Tankersley’s best friends and teammates, senior Sidney Whitfield, also finished not far behind Tankersley in the 200 and 500 free, fifth in 1:52.08 and fifth in 4:59.66, respectively.
Countryside senior Robert Finke defended his titles in the 200 IM and 500 free, and perhaps more importantly, he swam about as fast as he had hoped.
"I haven’t fully tapered so I’m really, really happy with the times," said Finke, who won the 200 IM with a dramatic 5-foot come-from-behind surge to finish in 1:47.41, nipping the runnerup by .09 seconds. "I knew I had to make up some time and I just went after it."
Teammate Joey Licht won the 100 backstroke in 49.56. In the 200 IM, Licht took fourth in 1:51.12.
Steinbrenner freshman Lexie Mulvihill and Strawberry Crest senior Celi Guzman both collected silver medals — Mulvihill in the 50 free (23.16) and Guzman in the 100 backstroke (54.90).
"That was the fastest I’ve ever swam (the backstroke) so I couldn’t be any happier," said Guzman, who recently committed to Florida. "Everything went about as well as I could have hoped."
Guzman took sixth in the 100 fly in 55.37, getting edged by Durant’s Katie Vasiloff, fifth in 55.26.