There’s no easing into the 2019 season for the Branson High School volleyball team.
When the first serve goes up on Tuesday night, the Lady Pirates will be taking on Logan-Rogersville, the defending state champion in Class 4, the 24th-ranked team nationally by MaxPreps, and with reigning Gatorade Player of the Year Birdie Hendrickson, a commit to the University of Florida.
Branson coach Kailey Bridges is looking at it as a positive, though.
“It’s always good to start out playing some good competition,” Bridges said at a recent practice. “We competed OK against them last year.
“They are a spectacular program, and it will be a good starting point for us.”
Bridges will trot out a team long on experience and balance for the opener, for her second season on the job.
That’s significant given the revolving door of coaches at the school in previous years. Bridges was the third coach in as many seasons when she led the program in the 2018 season.
Being back for a second season and not giving the players another one-and-done coach has been a huge lift.
“The relationships are there, and I think the trust is there,” Bridges said. “I know I trust my players a lot more than I did last year, just because I know them. I know what they’re about, and I think the feeling is pretty mutual.
“They know what I’m about and what is expected. I think it just helps the chemistry in general.”
With Bridges is back for a second season, and the culture and mood around the program is a strong and positive one.
“So far, everyone is meshing really well and we all have that common goal,” Bridges said. “I don’t know why it’s a little bit different from last year, but it seems like everyone’s got that same focus and just wants to be better.
“Be a better competitor, be a better force in the (Central Ozark Conference) and in our district, and just improve.”
The increased cohesion and positive change in culture is something that the players have noticed and bought into.
“You can definitely see it with our team this year, especially in practice,” senior Keaton Wilczynski said. “We’re all more comfortable in our routine, and we’ve never had that consistent routine, with us changing coaches.
“It’s a lot more sustainable and a lot more comfortable, and that helps with the atmosphere and the team chemistry.”
Branson won seven of its first 10 matches to open last season, recorded victories over 20-win programs Springfield Parkview, Sacred Heart and Webb City, and ended with a 17-15 record and first-round district loss to Parkview.
There are eight seniors returning, giving Bridges a deep and experienced roster to choose from.
Front-row threats Jaden Moore (143 kills as a junior), Morgan LeBlanc (141 kills) and Annie Graber (131 kills) all are back, along with setter Grace Dean (584 assists), Mia LeBlanc and Jordyn Schwartz.
Moore said the balance the team can display in the front row will be a huge benefit. Opposing teams won’t be able to key on just one player, and if someone is having an off night, there are others able to step up and shoulder the bulk of the workload.
“I think it’s going to be important this season,” Moore said. “We have eight seniors, and we all have our big parts to play.
“We all want to be playing as much as we can, and you can’t focus on any one of us.”
Three strong defensive specialists are returning, in Wilczynski, Kayli Nimmo and Alli Hawkins.
“We should have a lot of balance on the front row, and our back-row group of DSs is just phenomenal,” Bridges said. “Those three kids work so well together, it just makes them a force. They passed so well over the summer, and they mesh well, they’re consistent.
“That will definitely make our hitters’ jobs a little easier, makes our setters’ jobs a little easier, and just helps everything flow.”
It has led to a level of cohesion that some coaches never find with their team, and especially in the Branson program in recent years.
“We’re definitely all on the same page,” Dean said. “I think there were times last year when it felt like we all weren’t wanting to compete, but I think this year, we’re all on the same page, and we want to win.
“We want to win conference.”
After Tuesday night’s opener against Logan-Rogersville, Branson’s schedule includes hosting a tournament on Sept. 7 and tournaments in Camdenton and Mt. Vernon.
Single matches at Lebanon, Nixa and Willard, and at home against Ozark and Carthage, highlight the rest of the schedule.