BRANCHVILLE - The Branchville volleyball team appeared to hit its postseason stride on Wednesday night, taking a 3-0 home win against Lake View, making the plays a defending state championship program needs to make in playoffs.
Consistent serving and crisp passing helped the Yellow Jackets (21-10-2 record) take set wins of 25-6, 25-8 and 25-15, advancing them to host the Class A Lower State final against East Clarendon on Monday at 6 p.m.
For Branchville on Wednesday, sophomore Abby Funchess had 9 service aces, 1 block, 11 assists and 3 kills, senior Lynasia Felder had 4 service aces, 10 digs, 3 blocks and 4 kills, senior Madison Leggett had 3 service aces, 17 service receptions, 14 digs, sophomore Kelsey Kinard had 3 blocks and 5 kills, senior Cassidy Jacobs had 7 service aces, and 6 assists, junior Anna Smith had 4 digs, freshman Olivia Banks had 4 service aces and 3 kills.
The regular season was a challenging time for the Yellow Jackets, as several key players dealt with injuries and young players who didn't have major roles on the 2016 state title team worked their way into the mix.
But, after a bye in the first round and a slow start to playoffs in Monday's second-round home win against Green Sea-Floyds, Branchville played a confident and mostly-dominant game on Wednesday against the Lady Wild Gators.
With 28 of their 75 points coming on service aces, the Lady Jackets did the little things that teams have to do for success in the postseason.
"We came out so strong those first two sets, compared to Monday night when we came out flat," Branchville head coach Ron Nester said. "Tonight we came out to play and we only had to make changes and tighten up a few things in the third set.
"If we play our game, I believe we can hang with anybody. It is a very good mix (of experience and youth) that we have. The four seniors (Felder, Leggett, Jacobs and Jordan Smith) have really been the backbone of this team for a few years, and they took us to the state championship last year. They are leading and we have a young set of girls who are talented, hungry and ready to play. This team has blended and everybody has been accepting of their roles."
In the first set on Wednesday, Branchville went on an early scoring run highlighted by 2 aces from Leggett and finished by a kill on a 50-50 ball by Felder for an 11-3 lead. Jacobs then highlighted a 7-0 scoring run with 2 service aces, as Felder ended the run with a well-placed dink for an 18-4 advantage. With Felder serving late in the set, Funchess collected a few points at the net for the 25-6 finish.
In the second set, Funchess starting things with a point off a 2-handed dink, as the Yellow Jackets raced out to a 5-0 lead. After that, the two squads exchanged points until Branchville mounted a 10-0 run, with Jacobs serving and picking up 2 aces along the way. Down the stretch, Felder served and Jacobs collected two late assists setting up Banks for kills, including the one for set point in the 25-8 finish.
"We've been taking other strategies and putting them into play, studying other teams and adjusting our defense," said Jacobs, who came back from a knee injury earlier in the year to rejoin the team in September. "We've been doing a lot better serving.
"A couple of us were out some of the season, because of injuries, and we've been working on playing together. Some of us know the pressure (of playoffs) and we're trying to put the pressure on them (the younger players), to let them learn."
In the third set, Lake View pulled out to a 5-3 lead. Miscues and miscommunication midway through the set saw the home team help the Lady Gators reel off five straight points for a 12-7 lead over the Yellow Jackets. But, with Branchville trailing 13-12, Funchess served an ace to tie things and start an 11-0 scoring run. She collected two more aces during the stretch and Kinard had a kill to highlight the late surge for a 23-13 lead en route to the 25-15 final.
East Clarendon hosted Bethune-Bowman on Wednesday, taking a 3-0 win with set scores of 25-17, 25-15 and 25-9.
Now the Lady Wolverines will take on the Lady Jackets in playoffs for the third straight year.
"We want to beat them for a third time," Jacobs said. "It's kind of like a rivalry now."
In earlier Class A state playoff action on Monday, Hunter-Kinard-Tyler lost at No. 1 seed Dixie, while North lost at No. 1 seed Lewisville by set scores of 25-18, 25-15 and 25-10.
On Tuesday, Orangeburg-Wilkinson lost out of Class 4A state playoffs in a 3-1 game at Hilton Head Island.