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Lewisville and Branchville battle for state volleyball crown Saturday

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By Travis Jenkins

Branchville has been where Lewisville is before...but Lewisville wants to be where Branchville is now.

The two schools will meet Saturday to battle for the Class A state volleyball championship. Branchville is no stranger to competing for titles having lost in the finals five times in one recent six-year stretch to either St. Joe’s or Southside Christian. When realignment moved most of the non-public schools out Class A last year, the Lady Yellow Jackets won their first title, defeating The Governor’s School.

“It was very satisfying,” Branchville Coach Ron Nester said Wednesday’s state championship press conference. “We as a program and a community had worked very hard to develop. To go and be the bridesmaids so many times was tough. Now we have to accept the role of defending champions.”

“I know we have to respect them. They are holding the position for now and we’re going to play for it,” said Lewisville Coach Josh Renaud.

Branchville stands at 22-10 on the season. Nester said he was initially worried coming into the year having graduated a large (and obviously very talented) senior class from the year before. He also had to deal with some injuries, with star senior Lynasia Felder dealing with a shoulder problem. However, young players like sophomore Abby Funchess (69 service points this year) stepped up and provided a compliment to Felder and fellow senior Madison Leggett (403 digs this year). About 14 of the team’s 15 players regularly get on the floor for Branchville.

The Lady Yellow Jackets played a rigorous schedule this year, with some of the team’s losses coming to much bigger schools and volleyball powers, like Socastee, Conway and St. James. They got their share of big wins too, knocking off Oceanside Collegiate, Colleton County and went 8-0 in their region. Lewisville also played up, including in a scrimmage right before the season started against AAAA Lancaster. Renaud said he saw that both as an opportunity for his team to get better and to perhaps provide a humbling experience. Instead, Lewisville won that night and won again against the Lady Bruins in the regular season. The team’s only two losses came to AAAAA Northwestern and to York Prep on a night when two starters were out with injuries. They went 4-0 in the region against very tough competition in McBee and the Governor’s School.

“After last year, we knew we had to change something. We knew we had to do something to take the next step,” Renaud said of the beefed-up 2017 schedule.

Renaud (and his sister Amelia) took over the Lewisville program in 2014. The school had no history of success in the sport to speak of. Renaud knew Lewisville had the athletes to compete in most any sport, it was just a matter of setting the program on solid footing, getting players to buy in and instilling a family vibe.

“I knew it would be a mental game,” he said. “If we could get on the same page, we’d take off.”

After taking tiny baby steps forward in the first two years, Lewisville exploded last season, advancing all the way to the upperstate finals. It wasn’t easy taking the next step, but Renaud said more of his players took part in club ball and went to volleyball camps in the offseason. That extra work paid off when Lewisville edged past Dixie in five sets Monday to win its first-ever upperstate championship.

The significance of a state title win for a girl’s team is not lost on this year’s Lady Lions. No girl’s team at the school has won a state title since the competitive cheer team of legendary Coach Debbie Rogers in 2000 and none has even been a state runner-up since Susan Lancaster’s competitive cheer team in 2002. Outside of Rogers’ four title-winners (in a five-year span), no Lewisville girls team has won state since the basketball squad in 1960.

“It would mean so much,” said junior Amber Bass, who leads Lewisville with 183 kills this season.

“It would mean everything. At Lewisville we’re all close and the boys and girls talk junk to one another. They think they’re all that…they’re great and I give our boys credit, but this year is our year,” said senior Lauren Crocker.

Now, the chance is right in front of them. Renaud and Nester agreed it would be a tough battle one way or the other. Branchville worked hard to win a title and wants to defend it just as badly as Lewisville wants to take it away.

Saturday’s match will take place at Chapin High School at 10:30 a.m. For a behind-the-scenes video of Bass and Crocker at Wednesday’s state championship press conference, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L9uqc9Ijvh4