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'An amazing feeling'

Sikes powers Branford past Bell and into state semifinal

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The Branford volleyball team celebrates after beating Bell to win the regional championship Tuesday night and advance to a Class 1A state semifinal.

BELL, Fla. — Branford toppled Bell with a forceful performance from middle blocker Lachelle Sikes Tuesday night at Bell to advance to a Class 1A semifinal.

Sikes was at her best in the fourth set, where she continually was set up by teammates and found numerous points at the net with kills and touch shots.

Branford won the regional final 3-1 (22-25, 27-25, 25-23, 25-20) to advance to a Class 1A state semifinal against Newberry. The semifinal match will be in Branford on Nov. 9 at 2 p.m. The other semifinal features Baker and Sneads. The state championship is set for Nov. 15 at 2:30 p.m. at the Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers.

“It’s all on how we wanted it. We brought everything,” Sikes said of winning a regional championship, the first in program history. “It’s all I’ve worked for it.”

“We’ll be putting in a lot of practice and watching game film for Newberry. Our teams don’t give up.”

Branford led 10-6 in the first set before multiple mistakes and a barrage of kills by Bell’s Jillian Cassube allowed the Bulldogs to go ahead on a 10-2 run. But Branford fought back with kills by Cera McElreath, a nice double block by Sikes and Kinleigh Collins for a point, and an ace and a point off serve by Adrianna Saavaedra to cut Bell’s lead to 21-20.

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Branford's Cera McElreath sets the ball as Lachelle Sikes, middle, and Blair Smith approach for attacks.

The Buccaneers had trouble blocking at the net in the fist set, but turned that around in subsequent sets and won up front. Hitting long was a problem for Bell, which beat Branford three times this season before losing Tuesday night. Bell finished the season at 27-2, while Branford moves on with a 22-5 record.

“We started shifting some people for blocking purposes,” Branford coach Mendy Sikes said of correcting the blocking issues.

The second set started slow, but heated up with McElreath recording a couple of kills, and middle blocker Cierra Ellefson blocked Cassube at the net.

With chants of “Lets go Branford,” from the Bucs’ fans, who outnumbered those cheering for Bell, McElreath was able accumulate points toward the end of the second set, including the game-winner.

Lachelle Sikes, playing the middle blocker position in the third set, was stellar with a succession of points. In a stretch where Branford went from trailing 6-5 to a 12-9 lead, the senior standout recorded a point at the net, a point on a double block with Collins, blocked Cassube for a point, recorded a kill, and blocked Cassube at the net again.

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Branford outside hitter Blair Smith follows through on an attack Tuesday night at Bell.

Branford’s Dara Cannon got a tip point at the net and Ellefson had a nice kill at the net to put Branford up 15-9. But Bell’s power hitters Taria Liles, Hailey Pope and Cassube didn't go away as Bell recovered for a 22-21 lead.

But Lachelle Sikes returned with three kills and Bell uncharacteristically allowed a ball to drop uncontested that allowed Branford to go up two sets to one.

The game went from too much precision, too many kills, too many blocks and too many power hitters from Bell to too much energy, too much enthusiasm and passion, too much Lachelle Sikes from Branford.

“I think the first three sets Bell was on, and then we capitalized on their errors and we were able to get in their heads,” Lachelle Sikes said. “In the fourth they had lower energy.”

Playing with unmatched vigor, and hyped-up teammates and a crowd stomping the bleacher with a chorus of “Lets go Branford,” Lachelle Sikes began her rampage in the fourth set at the net with kills and controlled tip shots and a big-time block on Cassube.

The Bucs focused in the fourth set on setting up Sikes for kills.

“When I know I’m on I feel very confident, and I communicate with the setter that. ‘I need you to set me up,’ because I have confidence that I can get a kill,” she said.

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The Branford fans celebrate on the court with the players after the Buccaneers defeated Bell to win the regional final.

Outside hitter Blair Smith added: “It’s amazing. I think because we beat Bell, we can beat anyone.

“When (Sikes is) on, she’s on. She brought her A game tonight, we all did.”

Cannon got another tap point and Smith got two tip-in points as Branford went ahead 13-10.

Bell seemed to respond like a boxer who had no response to a barrage of punches and hit many shots long and out, had a non-returned serve and a foul as the Bucs climbed on top 20-18.

McElreath retuned at the end with a vicious kill and later notched the game-winner.

“It’s an amazing feeling as a coach,” to win a game this big, Mendy Sikes said. “It’s a pure honor.

“They wanted it, they told me every point was like going to war. They believed in each other and fought as a team. I knew they could do it. Bell is an amazing team, but I knew our girls could beat them, but we had to play flawless. Even when we gave up points we battled back.”

Bell coach Drue Barry lamented the team’s mistakes.

“You can’t do that against this caliber of a team, good luck to them,” he said.

Jeff Shourds is a sports writer for the Suwannee Democrat, Jasper News and Mayo Free Press.

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