BRANCHVILLE - Scores were closer late, but in the end the Branchville Yellow Jackets finished off East Clarendon in the SCHSL Class A volleyball Lower State final on Monday, 3-0.
Playing at home, the defending Class A state champions (22-10-2) won by set scores of 25-5, 25-16 and 25-22.
The Lady Wolverines, who eliminated Bethune-Bowman from playoffs to earn a third straight playoff meeting with the Lady Jackets in as many years, got going late. But, it wasn't enough to take a win in the third set and extend the game to a fourth set. Sophomore middle blocker Kelsey Kinard made a block for the 24th point, before delivering a game-ending kill for the 25th and final point.
Kinard, a sophomore who transferred in from Colleton County this year, is among the young Branchville players who have worked so well in the playing rotation alongside the four senior Lady Jackets this season.
"It's been great this season," Kinard said. "I was nervous at first tonight, but I got in a rhythm and felt better, and it was exciting to get that last point and know that we won.
"We kept talking about finishing out in three and not playing another set. This is emotional, because this will be my first time going to state. I'm excited about what the future holds for us and where we'll go next."
Branchville head coach Ron Nester has really liked the mix of seniors and younger talent on his team this season. The team communication and solid play was evident on Monday against a familiar opponent that seemed to improve by the set.
"They are a good program, a good team, but we came out really strong tonight, playing with very few errors early," Nester said. "We did kind of lose our edge and focus in the third set, making way too many mistakes.
"Hustle points is what wins points and wins games. We won those late. This feels great, going back to state. But we still have work to do. This group works well together. Our four seniors are fierce competitors. The older girls are showing their leadership this year, and we have a bright future with the younger girls."
Branchville will play for the Class A title at Chapin High School on Saturday at 10:30 p.m. against Lewisville, who beat No. 1 seed Dixie 3-2 on Monday.
In the first set, Danielle McAlhany served the home team to a 9-0 lead, as East Clarendon return errors helped Branchville establish an early advantage. Net returns and double-hit violations denied the visitors from any early success, as a service ace by Olivia Banks made it a 12-1 lead midway through the set. Sophomore Abby Funchess made two kills and McAlhany delivered two well-placed dinks for points down the stretch in the 25-5 win.
In the second set, Branchville made some errors early, as the teams exchanged points. Up 4-3, the Lady Jackets went on a 12-1 run for a 16-5 lead after a string of Lady Wolverine net returns and two straight aces from Cassidy Jacobs. EC scored 5 straight midway through the set. But two late kills from Branchville senior Lynasia Felder sealed the 25-16 win.
East Clarendon started off the third set on fire, taking a 4-0 lead, before the home team tied it at 4-all. A net serve by Branchville made it an 8-6 score for EC, before the home team pulled ahead 10-9 on a double-hit violation. A kill from Kinard made it 14-11. But EC bolted back to tie things at 14-all. Back-to-back dinks gave the Lady Wolverines a 19-16 lead late, but Jacobs brought her team back to even at 19-all with two consecutive push returns to open back corner slots. That set up Kinard's strong net play to finish out the set and the win.
Funchess had 4 aces, 7 digs, 9 assists and 3 kills. Felder had 1 ace, 7 digs, 1 assist and 1 kill. Madison Leggett had 1 ace, 18 digs, 1 assist and 1 kill. Kinard had 3 blocks and 5 kills. McAlhany had 4 kills. Jordan Smith had 1 ace, 4 blocks, 1 kill. Anna Smith had 7 digs. Banks had 4 aces, 3 digs and 1 kill. Jacobs had 2 aces, 12 digs and 2 kills.