CHAPIN - The Branchville volleyball team won its first 10 sets of SCHSL Class A state playoffs. But losing the final three to Lewisville on Saturday morning at Chapin High School denied the Yellow Jackets a second straight state championship.
Branchville (21-11 record) kept the postseason momentum going early Saturday, taking the opening set in the title game by a 25-16 score.
The tide soon turned though, as Lewisville (12-2 record) got a shot in the arm from the powerful net play of junior middle hitter Amber Bass. The Lions got going and took three sets in a row by scores of 26-24, 25-16 and 25-22.
"We came out with a lot more emotion (than the Lions), but in the second set I think that they rebounded to play better," Branchville head coach Ron Nester said. "We weren't panicking at that point. But, by the third set, I had a couple (players) who were losing confidence and we were being too tentative, trying to tip and not trying to hit any more.
"We had a great season. Didn't start off the best, but we were building and I thought we were peaking at the right time. Emotionally, I don't know if we were prepared for somebody to get in our face, like they did. Amber Bass is an incredible player. I think she upped her game today for state. We had no answer for that."
Early in the first set, the lead went back and forth. Kelsey Kinard got a point off a block before Abby Funchess served an ace for a 9-8 Branchville lead. Then a 4-1 Lions scoring run made it 12-10 after a dink from Allie Keels. Branchville went on a 5-0 scoring run, highlighted by a service ace from Madison Leggett, for a 15-12 lead. From there, the Lady Jackets didn't trail again in the set, benefitting from Lions violations and a kill apiece from Funchess and Kelsey Kinard for the 25-16 finish.
Lions return mistakes helped Branchville go up 6-2 in the second set. But a 6-point scoring run midway through gave Lewisville a 12-10 lead after back-to-back kills from Keels. The Lady Jackets tied things at 12-12 on an ace from Jordan Smith. But Branchville never led again, as Bass collected two kills down the stretch in the 26-24 Lions win.
"We were giving them too many free balls, and then they were just setting Amber (Bass)," Nester said. "We couldn't win those rallies.
"Their team hustled the whole time and made plays."
The third set started off as a showcase for Bass, who registered three kills, a block point and two dink points early on, lifting the Lions to a 7-4 lead. Consecutive kills from Funchess and Lynasia Felder, followed by another Felder kill and an ace from Cassidy Jacobs made it 11-7 Branchville. But passing errors and violations helped the Lions before Bass took over with 4 kills and 2 dinks late in the 25-16 Lions' set win.
Branchville led 14-9 midway through the fourth set. But Bass brought her team back with a kill and two aces for a 14-14 tie. After a 16-16 tie, the Lions had a 6-2 run and never trailed again. Errors and net serves kept Branchville from coming back in the 25-22 set.
Leggett had 2 aces and 34 digs. Funchess had 2 aces, 11 digs and 10 kills. Felder had 2 aces, 23 digs and 9 kills. Kinard had 7 kills and 5 blocks. Smith had 1 ace, 2 digs, 3 blocks and 1 kill. Anna Smith had 5 digs. Ashley Wright had 6 digs and 2 kills. Jacobs had 3 aces, 4 digs, 9 assists and 2 kills.
For the Lady Jackets, it was the seventh time in the past nine seasons that the program has finished either as state champion or state runner-up. Of those finishes, 2016 was the only state title win.
In the fourth year of Lewisville head coach Joshua Renaud's tenure, the Lions program went from winning just four games two years ago to winning the school's first state title in a girls sport in 15 years. With seven seniors playing, the Upper State champions had the experience and drive to withstand Branchville's early-game success and bounce back for the victory.
Bass, the lone junior on the Lewisville roster, returns next season with seven current sophomores who were on the Lions squad this season. Branchville has 11 underclassmen on roster, available to return for another state title run in 2018.
"Our (four) seniors have nothing to be ashamed of; this is a great way to go," Nester said. "That group has two (state) runner-up finishes and a gold. I'm proud of them.
"We'll lick our wounds, absorb the moment, and then start getting ready for next year."