COLUMBIA — Columbia College was struggling to put William Woods University away in the second game of a match on Tuesday night when a ball was hit in the direction of Cougars setter Luana Branco.
Branco appeared to be preparing to set the ball to one of her teammates, and the next instant the ball was slamming off the ground between two Owls defenders, completely untouched.
In the time it would take to blink, Branco had leaped into the air and unleashed a vicous haymaker on the ball with an authority and strength rare at the NAIA level for the game’s final point.
It was a play that brought the fans in attendance to their feet and left a longtime coach in a state of amazement, but it was also a play Columbia College coach Melinda Wyre-Washington has come to expect from her two-time All-American.
“She buried that ball,” a bewildered Wyre-Washington said after the game.
“That was awesome. I told her I wished there was a defender there because she would have knocked her out. She said she was tired of playing, so she just terminated the ball. She jumped and just banged it.”
It was a typical play from Branco, but not at all typical of more traditional setters. While a usual setter’s role is to orchestrate the team’s offense by getting other players involved, Branco also provides more of an offensive threat for the Cougars. It’s a skill she learned while being trained as a middle hitter in Brazil.
“She has very good court awareness for that reason,” Wyre-Washington said. “Anytime you’re a hitter turned setter or a setter turned hitter it kind of gives you a different perspective on the game.”
Branco is from Sao Paulo, Brazil, and learned to play a different style of volleyball while she was in her native country. Upon moving to Columbia, she had to make several adjustments to adapt to the American game.
“The ball is different in Brazil, because it is always really fast,” Branco said. “The game is really fast all the time, and here it is a lot slower.”
Wyre-Washington said that when Branco arrived at Columbia College it was only a matter of time before she made the necessary adjustments.
“She set such a high ball and was a little bit late getting to the ball,” Wyre-Washington said. “But those things were easy to fix with practice because she was athletic enough to do it, she just wasn’t used to doing it.”
Wyre-Washington usually has plenty to say about her star player’s all-around talents, but when asked what weaknesses Branco has, she was nearly at a loss for words.
“She sets, she passes, she swings, she’s our best blocker, she’s an aggressive server, so I don’t think she has any skill weaknesses,” Wyre-Washington said.
If a weakness can be found in Branco it stems from her fierce competitiveness and sky-high expectations she has set for herself and her teammates.
“I think that her expectations are very high not just for herself, but for each and every player on the team,” Wyre-Washington said. “I think that she would die trying to win a game, but sometimes I think that’s a weakness, because she expects so much that she chews on the other players a little too much.”
It’s a weakness Branco acknowledges she has struggled with the past two seasons.
“This year I have tried to be more patient with the girls,” Branco said.
“Last year, not so much my first year, because I couldn’t speak (English), I yelled a lot more, and I wasn’t patient and that just made things crazy.”
Wyre-Washington expects this to be a battle Branco fights well into her senior season.
“I think it’s easy for her to get frustrated sometimes,” Wyre-Washington said.
“And she chews on the players a little too much and some of the other players get offended. But she’s learning to be a positive leader and I think it will be a process even through her senior year.”
Branco’s fiery exterior draws comparisons from her coach to a former Cougar who displayed a similar psyche.
“Her competitive spirit is like an Endrinha Sosa of the past,” Wyre-Washington said. “I can’t think of anyone more competitive than that.”
Sosa, an outside hitter for Columbia College who finished her career in 2002 as a three-time NAIA All-American, won national championships in 1999 and 2001. That is a feat, more than any individual accolade, that Branco would love to duplicate.
In 2005, Branco’s freshman year, the Cougars finished second in the NAIA National Tournament. But last season the Cougars ended the season in a fifth place tie, which, at least for Branco, was extremely disappointing.
When asked what her goals for herself and the team are for this season, Branco names only one.
“I want to win the national championship,” Branco said. “Reaching (the NAIA National Tournament) and winning the conference are not easy things, but this year I hope we get the championship.”