That’s the night, 14 years ago, when outside hitter Nicole Branagh had 40 kills—six in game five alone—as the Gophers defeated Penn State for their first season sweep of the Lions. Nicole also had a career-high 29 digs as the Gophers set a Pav record with 124 digs. The Gophers hadn’t beaten Penn State in the first three years of Nicole’s college career but they beat them twice in just over a month that year. In September, Minnesota broke Penn State’s 87-match home winning streak, defeating the Lions in four sets.
“When we beat Penn State at Penn State to break their string,” says Nicole, “my dad surprised me by coming to that match. It was such a good game. But honestly, I have all good thoughts about my time at Minnesota. I’m happy to get back on campus.”
She returns to Minnesota this week as one of 14 former student-athletes, coaches and administrators who will be inducted into the “M” Club Hall of Fame during an Oct. 9 ceremony at TCF Bank Stadium. And she will be at the Pav to watch the Friday and Saturday matches.
Nicole still holds the most career kills in school history (2,379), a number that remains among the top 15 in NCAA history.
“I loved going to school at Minnesota,” says Nicole, a California native. “There was a great spirit there, great fans, incredible facilities and I loved playing in the Big Ten. I was really fortunate to be a part of it. It was a great experience although I remember that at first, I was so homesick that all I could do was cry and play volleyball. But [Apple Valley native and outside hitter] Sarah Pearman took us under her wing.”
In 1997, Nicole was an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention freshman. In 1998, she earned First Team All-Big Ten honors. In 1999, she was again named First Team All-Big Ten and was named Second Team All-America. As a senior in 2000, she was a third consecutive First Team All-Big Ten selection, was Second Team All-America again and was named Big Ten Player of the Year.
After her time at the U, Nicole was reunited with former Gopher setter Lindsey Berg on the U.S. national team in 2001-2003. The U.S. team won the Pan American Cup and took third at the 2003 Pan American Games, in which Nicole was the top scorer.
Another teammate in those days was Elisabeth “Wiz” Bachman, who’s now, of course, married to Gophers head coach Hugh McCutcheon. The trio also played on the Minnesota Chill in 2002, leading the team to a title in the now-defunct United States Professional Volleyball League. “We had some crazy adventures with the Chill,” Nicole says. “People called us the Stooges.”
In 2004, Nicole headed outdoors to embark on a successful beach volleyball career. She was named the Association of Volleyball Players (AVP) Rookie of the Year in 2005 and it’s Most Improved Player in 2006 and 2008. She teamed up with Elaine Youngs in 2006, and she and Youngs finished fifth in the 2008 Summer Olympics. The following year, Nicole was named the AVP’s Most Valuable Player.
In this season, her 10th on the AVP tour, Nicole and Amanda Dowdy played together in five of the seven AVP tournaments and finished as high as fifth in three. How long will Nicole continue to play professionally? Will she attempt another Olympic run?
“That’s the big question right now,” says Nicole, who will receive her bachelor’s degree in sports management and business from the University this December. “I’m trying to figure it out right now.”
Strong, young players are always appearing on the AVP Tour, but one youngster in particular is really making Nicole think about her future. Ten-month-old Tegan is challenging Nicole in new ways.
“This has been my first year trying to balance it all,” says Nicole. “It’s been a crazy year. I used to go to the beach, come home, have lunch, rest, go at it again. But the new reality for me is that I’m not able to do that now. Most of my time is focused on Tegan. I want to spend time with her. I’m still training. I might go to Argentina and play on the FIVB tour, which is how you qualify for the Olympics. But travel is very hard now and I don’t know if it’s a reality for me. The question is, what am I willing to sacrifice to do it?”
If she’s done with the beach, is she done with volleyball?
“I’d love to coach, and there are a lot more opportunities now with more colleges adding sand volleyball programs,” says Nicole, who spent a season as an assistant coach at Cal State Fullerton.
“Nicole has such a fun personality,” says her friend and former teammate Wiz McCutcheon. “I think she will be able to relate well with her players yet still get the job done. Additionally, she has played and excelled at all levels and disciplines of the game and has so much experience and knowledge to draw from. Nicole was a wonderful teammate. She worked hard every day, gave 100 percent, and was someone you could rely on, both on and off the court. Nicole is a wonderful friend and we are so excited to welcome her back to Minnesota this weekend!”
Gopher Fans: Nicole will be signing autographs before Friday’s match between 6:15 and 6:45 pm at the west end promo table!