An hour into the 2019 season opener, the Branson High School volleyball team was on the verge of a giant-killing upset. The Lady Pirates hosted Logan-Rogersville in their first match, and the Wildcats were coming off a 2018 season when they finished 38-2, won the Class 4 state championship and lost only eight sets all season.
Logan-Rogersville brought a No. 24 national ranking by MaxPreps into the match, and also brought with it 6-foot-3 senior Birdie Hendrickson, the reigning Gatorade Player of the Year in Missouri and a commit to play at the University of Florida.
Even with all that firepower on the other side of the net, Branson led from start to finish in taking the opening set, then held an 18-13 lead in the second set.
That’s about the time Hendrickson took over, telling her teammates, “Get me the ball on every play.”
Her teammates did, and Hendrickson delivered, leading the Wildcats to a 21-25, 25-23, 25-17 victory.
“That’s a kid who is going to do what it takes to win, and she’s good enough to win,” Branson coach Kailey Bridges said. “That’s the type of mentality we need, and it’s tough to teach that.
“It’s pretty awesome.”
Throwing that big of a scare into a nationally ranked and seasoned opponent, while far from the objective, was a show of what this Branson team is capable of.
While Bridges wouldn’t come close to calling it a moral victory, she did see enough good things to make her excited about the rest of the season.
“I think and I hope that, more than anything, it showed those kids what they are capable of doing,” Bridges said. “I think we have the skill and talent to compete at that level. We just have to be mentally tough enough to power through a whole match.
“You can see it, they get around that 18- or 19-point mark and it’s almost like a panic of not knowing how to win. They are completely capable of getting past that.”
Branson turned in dominant stretches of play in the opening set, pulling away from a 4-3 lead to stretch the advantage to 9-4 – forcing a Logan-Rogersville timeout – 16-11, 21-15 and 24-17.
The Wildcats fought off four set points before a hit out of bounds ended a long rally and gave Branson a 25-21 set win.
Annie Graber and Jordyn Schwartz each came up big in the opening set. Graber had a block on Hendrickson, then followed with a big kill to give the Lady Pirates a 15-10 lead.
Schwartz had two kills early, then two during a late run that gave Branson a 20-15 lead.
Jaden Moore and Graber added kills to make it a 23-17 score.
That momentum carried over to the second set, when Graber had back-to-back kills, then Moore added kills on consecutive plays to give Branson an early 6-5 lead.
Graber had a kill and block, and Moore followed a Morgan LeBlanc kill from the back row to make it a 16-12 lead for the hosts.
Schwartz followed a Hendrickson kill with one of her own to the back line, and Moore added a kill on the next point to make it an 18-13 lead.
That’s when Hendrickson took over, sparking a 7-0 run that included three kills – one going right through the middle of a double block – and finishing with a perfectly placed tip that made it a 20-18 Logan-Rogersville lead.
Claire Taylor put down a kill on the Wildcats’ third set point for a 25-23 set victory, evening the match at one set each.
Graber and LeBlanc recorded two kills each early in the final set to keep the Lady Pirates close. Branson led, 8-6, after LeBlanc’s two kills, then a Logan-Rogersville hitting error.
But the Wildcats reeled off eight consecutive points, two on kills by Hendrickson, two on kills by Taylor and one on a block by Hendrickson and Chelsea Schatzer.
Branson cut the deficit to four points