Similarities aplenty between ex-teammates

by Sarah Mitchell

The similarities between two opposing volleyball players in Minnesota’s match against Michigan on Saturday were astonishing.
Both possess similar physical attributes, standing a lanky 6-foot-1. Both own fierce approaches to the net. And both are respected as their team’s most threatening player.
For now, however, Gophers coach Mike Hebert said Minnesota sophomore outside hitter Nicole Branagh and Wolverines senior outside hitter Karen Chase, both products of Miramonte high school in Orinda, Calif., might not be so comparable.
Chase is slightly ahead of her old high school teammate because of the extra Big Ten experience.
“I don’t think Karen has Nicole’s athleticism,” Hebert said. “Right now she has the shot selection and the control.”
The two played together for only one high school season at Miramonte, Chase as a senior and Branagh as a sophomore. Although Branagh described Chase as “the bomb” in high school, Chase said Branagh could be rather explosive herself.
“She was always right there with me, pushing me for the starting job,” Chase said.
As a high school senior Branagh was not as heavily recruited as Chase was two years earlier. After benefitting from Chase’s presence on the team, Michigan turned its interest to Branagh.
But by the time Branagh was invited to Ann Arbor for a recruiting trip, she already felt like she belonged at Minnesota.
“Plus she was overwhelmed by the coaching staff,” Hebert joked.
Branagh’s decision was Wolverines coach Greg Giovanazzi’s loss. In 1997, Branagh’s first season as a Gopher, the outside hitter made substantial contributions to the team. She led the Gophers with 478 kills, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors.
This season Branagh is on track to shatter that statistic. With 14 20-plus kill matches in the books this season and six Big Ten matches remaining, the sophomore has totalled 470 kills. Had Giovanazzi been more aggressive, Michigan might have fared better this season.
“Nicole reminded me so much of Karen,” Giovanazzi said. “I said, `Look, another Karen.'”
When the two teams squared off at Michigan in early Oct., Branagh’s former teammate posted a career night hitting 23 kills in 26 attempts, with just one error. Against the Gophers on Saturday, Chase was slowed a bit, drilling 14 kills with only two hitting errors.
“She’s a very good player,” Gophers middle blocker Stephanie Hagen said. “Last time she just went off on us.”
Chase didn’t play as much on Saturday because Giovanazzi substituted her out of the backcourt. When she was in the front row, Chase’s excellent play caused her to rotate out quickly.
With Chase’s graduation after this season, it might be a long time before Branagh plays against or even with a former teammate. Top California volleyball prospects tend to remain in-state, as many competitive programs, such as No. 1 Long Beach State, flourish there.
To Branagh’s knowledge, no other Miramonte products are currently competing at the collegiate level. For the meantime, Branagh savored the rare occurrence.
“It’s a lot of fun to play against an old high school teammate,” Branagh said. “It’s a lot of fun.”