Champs! Division I state title caps off historic volleyball season


Shun Graves

Dylan Whisenant, who won a game award, hugs Celia Tolmie (14) after girls varsity volleyball won the Division I state championship, Nov. 18, 2022. The five-set title game, held in Orange County, concluded a historic season for the team.

By Shun Graves

ORANGE — With girls varsity volleyball three points behind its Division I state opponent in the fifth set Friday night, something had to stop Palos Verdes’ pounding offense in its tracks.

That’s when middle hitter Cayman Stein spiked the ball right onto the Southern California team’s hardwood. Then outside hitter Elena Fisher followed up by spiking a thunder over the net. And when Stein made her next shot down the middle, Branson tied the scoreboard. A few points later, the team celebrated its first-ever Division I state title.

After winning the Division I regional final on Tuesday, also for the first time, Branson’s offense rallied to help post a 25-17, 24-26, 25-20, 23-25, 15-13 victory. And the defense, led by libero Lauren Dignan’s 28 digs, paced Palos Verdes’ outside hitters and blockers.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” coach Michelle Brazil said. “But I also knew what we’re capable of.”

That capability powered Branson to its down-to-the-wire victory in the fifth set. Palos Verdes had launched to an early lead as it pushed a tough attack, particularly from the left. Yet as Stein angled down the middle, and then as Anna Palfy stepped to the service line, Palos Verdes’ offense started to show cracks.

“I genuinely could not tell you who was on the other side of the net,” Stein said. “I was just so focused on what I was doing, what the team was doing and what was working and what wasn’t.”

Fisher also recorded a banner day, making 29 kills overall and eight in the first set alone. Her speedy spikes and calibrated tip attacks helped drive Branson to an eight-point lead to win the first set.

“Our players are so smart,” Margaux Barber said. “Even as a sophomore, Elena knows how to just navigate the court, knows where to go. There are obviously moments where we try to do too much; maybe we end up getting tooled or hitting out. But I do ultimately think that one of the best things about our play is our strategy.”

Girls varsity volleyball won Branson’s first-ever Division I state title, Nov. 18, 2022. (Shun Graves)

Palos Verdes also mounted a dogged defense that made long rallies the norm. That meant Branson had to make several attack attempts to tally a point. Fast setting by Logan Tusher, who counted 53 assists, kept up the pace of attacks.

And blocking by Palos Verdes required some offensive workarounds. For outside hitter Sadie Snipes, the answer resided in spiking deep into the opponent’s court. She made seven kills in the third set alone — many of them deep spikes — powering Branson’s five-point lead that set. Another critical deep shot by Snipes came halfway through the fifth set.

“We figured out pretty early on that the short stuff wasn’t working, just because their libero was all over the court,” she said. “We figured out that the strategy was to go into the deep corners and over the heads of those defenders.”

All told, Snipes made 16 kills. Fisher, who logged 25 digs, had a double-double. Dylan Whisenant followed Dignan and Fisher with 21 digs. Yet beyond any statistic, when Palos Verdes made its final attack error, Branson had won a title: Division I state champions.

“It took me a second to process that we had just won that point,” Snipes said. “Right then, everyone rushed onto the court, and there was a bit of a dogpile. In that moment, I was just in pure happiness.”

Now, the history and the triumph have just begun to sink in. The team last appeared at a state title game in 2015, when the school’s size confined it to Division V. Today, as state athletics officials determine divisions by performance, Branson not only made the state championships, but won the Division I title.

“I knew we could do it,” Barber said. “I believed so much in us, but it was honestly so much disbelief.”

The victory Friday at Santiago Canyon College in Orange marked the final chapter of a historic run. After a landmark season that saw the team’s first MCAL title since 2014 and first-ever Division I NorCal win, Brazil had one word for the team: proud.

“The pride and joy I have just watching these people play is beyond anything I really would’ve imagined this season,” she said. “There’s no other word.”