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O-W versus Branchville volleyball action shot

Orangeburg-Wilkinson's Setene Greene (3) goes up to attempt a block on a return at the net by Branchville's Ashley Wright (17) during a non-region match between the two region champions on Oct. 17. Both teams begin play in state playoffs this week.

The Branchville and Orangeburg-Wilkinson volleyball teams have posted great regular seasons this year, with both winning region titles through undefeated region runs.

Now, the real fun begins.

Both the Yellow Jackets (21-5-3 overall, 8-0 in winning Region 5-A) and Bruinettes (35-1 overall, 10-0 in winning Region 4-4A) begin state playoffs bracket play this week.

Both teams earned first-round byes and won't have been on the court for a competitive match in nearly two weeks. But, both are in position to make deep runs in playoffs.

The Yellow Jackets have played in the state championship seven of the last eight seasons.

Meanwhile, O-W is a regular playoff contender that has found trouble in the middle rounds of bracket play in recent years.

Branchville will play in the Class A Lower State bracket and host Charleston Math & Science on Monday night at 6 p.m., while O-W will play in the Class 4A Upper State bracket and host Blue Ridge on Tuesday at 6 p.m.

YELLOW JACKETS

"It has been an interesting year, in that we graduated four very good players last year, brought in some younger girls, and had the team mesh and grow together throughout the season," Branchville head volleyball coach Ron Nester said. "Our team is playing at a high level and we are ready for another run at a state title."

Branchville won the Class A championship in 2016, but fell in the title match a season ago.

"It's been a work in progress, with just two seniors, but we have young girls who have played well, including 8th-grader Brianna Wiles (a middle blocker) and freshman Carley Kinard (a middle blocker and outside hitter who made the all-region team)," Nester said. "Our older girls have brought them along and shown them their roles and they've fallen into place.

"It has worked its way out and the team has played through some injuries. But we are ready to go for playoffs.

Kelsey Kinard, a junior right side hitter, won all-state and all-region honors this season, but rolled her ankle late in the season. She is back playing. Meanwhile, senior defensive specialist Anna Smith won North/South All-Star and all-region honors, but has been recovering from a concussion and should be available to play within days.

The Yellow Jackets are led by Region 5-A Player of the Year and all-state performer Abby Funchess, a junior setter, along with senior outside hitter Danielle McAlhany, a North/South All-Star selection who also made all-region.

Branchville wrapped up winning the region title, then finished first in the silver division of a tournament at West Ashley on Oct. 13, before last playing on Oct. 17 at O-W, in a match won by the Bruinettes. In fact, the Yellow Jackets gave O-W its lone loss this season, but the favor was returned by the Bruinettes when they finished the regular-season schedule by winning against the visiting Lady Jackets.

"Two of the highlights of our season were splitting with O-W and in the Wilson Hall tournament we beat Cathedral Academy, who is the Class A state champs in SCISA," Nester said (describing wins where his team lost the opening set, only to bounce back and win the match). "You don't like the break (in competition), because it's hard to simulate in practice playing a match where it's all on the line and everyone is trying their best to win.

"Still, I think we are ready. Both Cross and Bethune-Bowman won their first-round matches in state playoffs and are representing our region well. Now it will be our turn to play."

Cross plays at Lake View on Monday, while Bethune-Bowman plays at Baptist Hill.

"Last year, I think we felt like we were the top team, the favorite to win," Nester said. "I may have had rested some and not had the edge to win state again.

"This year we have that hunger again. It's a realistic goal. We are not taking anything for granted. Our attack is stronger this year. We have more weapons on offense. And Abby has had a great year, as the top player in the state in aces, and she is what makes it work for us as the setter, the leader on the court."

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Other Class A No. 1 seeds are Lake View, Wagener-Salley and Dixie.

BRUINETTES

O-W head volleyball coach Denolis Wright is excited about taking her team into state playoffs on Tuesday.

Not only did she have her first region Player of the Year this season (senior outside hitter Makayla Berry), but she earned her first region Coach of the Year award and has her team competing against Upper State competition that is unfamiliar with the way O-W plays.

"I didn't anticipate us having this type of success during the regular season, being that we had graduated three key players two years ago and three key players a year ago," Wright said. "But, we have three seniors who are key players on this team, Makayla, (libero) Jeneene Lewis and (defensive specialist) Dominique Bartley.

"I have three freshmen (two from Felton Lab and one from Clark Middle) and a sophomore who have all come in and helped us. They were floor-ready and have played in our off-season program."

Sweeping the region title in a region that still included A.C. Flora proved to the returning varsity players that this O-W team could play with anyone this season and postseason.

There were other signs along the way. Winning against Aiken in the Bruinette Classic was one, considering Wright's teams had never won against Aiken. Then, winning the Sumter High tournament was another, since O-W had never won that showcase of area talent.

"I was thanking the Lord for what He had done already, getting us a few wins in Sumter, and then we kept winning," Wright said. "We had never beaten Dutch Fork before, and we won, same against Conway, and other big schools, we had never been able to win against, but here we were winning.

"That was really big. That was kind of a sign that maybe we are going to do some things this year."

This O-W team is a ball control squad, led by Wright's second and third all-state players, Berry and Lewis. Berry also earned SCCAWS All-Star honors.

"We are strategic and play smart," Wright said. "Everything doesn't have to be physically dominant, we just look across the court and see where we can place balls."

Playing Upper State teams they have not been on the court with before could prove to be interesting.

"I'm kind of happy to not be in Lower State," Wright said. "Although I think Upper State has great, great volleyball, that I'm not familiar with.

"Lower State has great volleyball (teams) that we've always fallen short against. That was intimidating to our girls to see most of the same teams, like Myrtle Beach (2014-16) or Hilton Head (2017), every postseason. Now, we are going to take it one match at a time. We are healthy and ready to go. It's going to be challenging, especially after this down time since we last played."

Wright played volleyball and basketball for O-W, before later coaching basketball at the school.

"When I decided to just coach volleyball, it's been a long road just trying to build to this point," Wright said. "I don't think we are quite there yet; but we are off to a good start.

"From days of asking people in the grocery store aisles if their girls want to play volleyball to now, where people send their girls my way to play volleyball, it's different and it's much better."

Other Class 4A No. 1 seeds are Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head, North Myrtle Beach, Aiken, Westwood, Eastside and Pickens.

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