The 2019 volleyball season is only about a week old.
But Branson High School coach Kailey Bridges already has seen her players make tremendous strides as a team.
The latest example came in the championship game of the Branson Invitational on Saturday, against a strong Rockwood Summit team.
The Lady Pirates had swept all six of the sets they played in pool play, earning the top overall seed in the Gold Division bracket.
Then came victories over Lebanon (25-19, 25-19) and Strafford (25-14, 25-19) to reach the tournament finals.
It’s where adversity hit.
Branson dropped the first set, 25-22, then dominated the second set (25-17) and scored five of the match’s final six points for a 25-21 clinching victory.
“We’ve talked a lot about being winners,” Bridges said. “There are teams that get so in the vibe with winning that they just know how to win, period.
“Branson has had some success in the past, but not quite as much. We’ve talked about switching over to that winning side and being winners and finding ways to win against really talented teams.”
The final stretch against Rockwood Summit brought back memories of the season opener, when Branson had nationally ranked Logan-Rogersville on the ropes, winning the first set and taking an 18-13 lead in the second before faltering.
Against Rockwood Summit, the teams split the first two sets and Branson took an 18-13 lead in the third set. A 7-2 run pulled the Falcons even at 20.
But Branson regrouped, scoring five of the match’s final six points.
“That’s a huge sign of growth,” Bridges said after her team won its seventh consecutive match to improve to 7-1 overall. “We’re definitely doing the little things, and everybody is working together as a team, and doing their job, and functioning at a very high level.
“I’m very happy.”
Senior libero Keaton Wilczynski said the response to Logan-Rogersville has been huge.
“That really just make our bond even stronger,” Wilczynski said. “We’re trying some new things, and it’s really paying off. We couldn’t be happier, and we’re working hard.
“I think we’re using the Rog match as motivation because we didn’t finish it off like we wanted to, but today we finished. We wanted it.”
Branson’s pool play left them as the No. 1 seed, after two-set sweeps of Mountain Grove, Cassville and Clinton.
Morgan LeBlanc came up big against Lebanon, with eight kills, and Annie Graber carried the team down the stretch, ending the match with a tip kill.
LeBlanc had six more kills in the victory over Strafford in the semifinals, with Graber recording a pair of big kills and the left-handed Jordyn Schwartz ending the match with another kill.
LeBlanc had four kills to keep Branson in the opening set against Rockwood Summit, and Graber had two kills sandwiched around a LeBlanc ace as the Lady Pirates rallied from down 21-17 to pull within 24-22.
A kill by Kylie Stehlin ended the set.
In the second set, Graber and Emily Prosser gave Branson some early momentum by teaming up on a loud block. Graber finished with five kills in the set, two in the final stages, and Schwartz added a kill to help end the set.
Jaden Moore had a block and kill as Branson took an early 10-5 lead in the third set, and the Lady Pirates led until a Rockwood Summit rally knotted the set score at 20.
Graber had two kill and LeBlanc added a service ace to set up a match point, and the winner came on a Rockwood Summit hitting error.
The victory set off a celebration and left the Branson players enjoying life with a seven-match winning streak. The Lady Pirates played at Springfield Parkview on Tuesday night before hosting Springfield Central on Thursday.
“It does feel completely different, because now that we have had this success, it has just built our confidence and our team chemistry to a higher level than it’s ever been,” Wilczynski said.
The Wolves won five of six sets in the pool-play portion of the tournament, then dropped a 26-24, 25-19 decision to Fair Grove in the quarterfinals of the Gold Bracket.
It wrapped up a busy opening stretch for Reeds Spring, which defeated Seneca on Thursday and Blue Eye on Friday, then went 2-1-1 on Saturday.
“Taking (the) third overall (seed) in this tournament out of pool play is pretty impressive for us,” Reeds Spring coach Molly Illum said. “It was fun to be in the Gold Bracket – I just wish we could have showed up in bracket play.
“I feel like it was a good day for us.”
Reeds Spring (4-1-1) swept Fair Grove and Tolton Catholic in pool play, and split two sets with Lebanon.
In the first set against Fair Grove in bracket play, the Lady Eagles took control with a 7-4 run to turn a 17-all set into a 24-21 lead.
The Wolves fought off three set points, with Carley Reeves-Eakins and Bella Fuller recording back-to-back kills to keep the set alive. Fair Grove’s Lauren Kennard ended the set with a pair of kills.
The Lady Eagles never trailed in the second set, taking advantage of a Reeds Spring team that was showing signs of fatigue.
“Our girls are just tired,” Illum said. “We played Thursday night and Friday night, and then four matches today. So their legs are tired, their mouths are tired, their arms are tired.
“We got beat, for sure, but we just got tired and lost our steam.”
Still, Illum is encouraged by what she has seen out of her team in the first week of the season.
“I’ve got three seniors on the floor for every single point, and sometimes four,” Illum said. “For them, it’s really good to see the leadership. They’ve been very good leaders in the offseason, so now it’s fun for the season to hit and for them to be leaders on the court.
“It’s been fun, and they are all raising their level. For me as a coach, that’s been really fun to see the seniors lead by example, and in play, too. That’s encouraging.”
After hosting Clever on Tuesday night, Reeds Spring is scheduled to play at Monett on Thursday.
Branson had four players named to the all-tournament team: Graber, LeBlanc, Wilczynski and Moore. Reeds Spring’s Reeves-Eakins and Fuller were voted to the team.