Branson downs Marin Catholic, heads to NorCal finals


Shun Graves

Girls varsity volleyball marks a point against Marin Catholic, Nov. 12, 2022. Branson heads to the NorCal finals after defeating Marin Catholic at College of Marin.

By Shun Graves

For girls varsity volleyball, it took some ingenuity to take down a Marin Catholic team that forced four sets Saturday night.

What had worked in Branson’s last showdown against the Kentfield foe — the tipped-in attack that helped clinch the MCAL semifinal — met its match against a defense that had studied up. With the tip often unavailable, it then came down to outside hitter Sadie Snipes and middle hitter Cayman Stein to angle their winning spikes past Marin Catholic’s defense.

“If you take away one thing, something else is always available,” coach Michelle Brazil said. “The kind of fortitude, mentally, to adjust our game plan and do something else? That’s impressive. And it’s hard.”

That offensive versatility pushed No. 5 Branson to defeat No. 8 Marin Catholic, 25-22, 25-22, 19-25, 25-19. That means the Bulls will head to Stockton Tuesday to face No. 3 St. Mary’s for the Division I regional final on the heels of a rallying offense at Branson’s final home game.

It became clear in the first set that Marin Catholic’s defense wouldn’t get surprised by a tip attack. The team scrambled to successfully receive outside hitter Elena Fisher’s tips, so a new task stood before the Bulls: how to get the best spike.

“We did a really great job of watching their defense on the other side and talking to our hitters about what was open and what wasn’t,” Snipes said. “Once we found out where they were on defense and the spots that were open — once we were able to execute that, it really worked for us.”

Fast setting and a dash of creativity kept the spikes hitting the floor. Snipes angled hers to either squeak down the line or thunder across the court. And Stein found success dunking spikes down the middle to stifle Marin Catholic’s defense. Yet the NorCal foe found success on its side with blocking.

“It took us a minute for us to find our way,” Brazil said. “Once we did that, it kind of slowed things down.”

Offense and defense regrouped to find ways around Marin Catholic’s block. Libero Lauren Dignan and Anna Palfy remained at the ready to make on-the-floor digs. Logan Tusher pushed a fast set to outpace the Kentfield team’s blockers. And sometimes, it came down to the block itself. By the fourth set, Snipes hit hard to exploit the opponent’s right blockers, who tended to strike the ball just out of bounds.

The kind of fortitude, mentally, to adjust our game plan and do something else? That’s impressive. And it’s hard.

— Michelle Brazil

But the team faced a long road to the fourth set. After the tight first two sets, Branson dropped a third set marked by defensive errors. If the team sought to leverage its tough offense and build back its defense, then it needed a boost in urgency.

“We just had, all the sudden, a sense of urgency,” Palfy said. “We talk about having a sense of urgency a lot on our team, but I don’t think it really went into effect as much until we lost that set.”

Dignan made some critical saves as offense powered ahead. The fourth set saw Branson reduce its errors, spike its way to a lead and punch holes in Marin Catholic’s blocks. The Bulls made an eight-point lead by 23 points, and even when Marin Catholic netted a couple points on its attack, the deficit proved too great. A Marin Catholic service error sealed the NorCal semifinal in four sets.

Tusher racked up 45 assists, plus 15 digs. Dignan logged 22 digs; Palfy counted 12. Stein tallied 11 kills in another strong showing from the middle. Fisher made a double-double with 13 kills and 18 digs. And Snipes again led the offense, this time with 19 kills.

“I can’t really say,” Snipes said of what’s powered her recent offensive sprees. “My mindset going into these last few games has been really good.”

Snipes has led Branson’s offensive efforts throughout the NorCals after a standout performance at the North Coast Section final against University last Saturday. Her offense combines hitting deep corners and getting set up at a lightning speed.

“She’s not scared to go for the ball,” Palfy said of Snipes. “She really just goes out there and does her best and doesn’t really think about the outcome as much. And faces the outcome when it comes.”

Branson’s side of the Division I bracket has seen quite a brouhaha. Marin Catholic entered Saturday’s game after upsetting No. 1 Whitney. And Thursday’s opponent, No. 13 Salinas, had just upset the fourth seed. On Tuesday, Branson will travel to No. 3 St. Mary’s — which came from behind to defeat the second seed in five sets — for the Bulls’ first NorCal final since 2015.

The team will put together a game plan Monday for the Tuesday road trip. But if something has kept Branson going throughout the playoffs, it’s been the words the team has written on its wrists. On Saturday, the players chose one word: fight.

“Whatever it is, you’re going to fight all 25 points of every single set,” Dignan said. “Whenever I’m feeling down, or I’m not feeling so confident, I just look at these words.”