Bratford overcomes odds to reach new plateaus

Ben Goessling

Trisha Bratford was a 2000 graduate of Taft High School in Reseda, Calif., – the same high school that boasts Maureen McCormick and Susan Olsen, the actresses who played Marcia and Cindy Brady on “The Brady Bunch,” as alumni.

It’s fitting, because Bratford has a story so warm and fuzzy it could have come straight out of the 1960s television show.

Except it’s stuff too real for Mike Brady to comprehend.

An outside hitter on Minnesota’s seventh-ranked volleyball team, Bratford was raised with five younger brothers and sisters in the Valley – an area of inner-city Los Angeles where the sound of gunfire wasn’t uncommon. She is the first member of her family to attend college.

She grew up without a father, and her mother, Tina Evans, worked full time at local warehouses and department stores just to pay the bills.

“We weren’t sure about money through the month,” Bratford said. “With six kids on one income, money didn’t go too far.”

Bratford took up volleyball as a freshman in high school at the request of her mother, who played volleyball in high school and could have competed in college had she not been pregnant with Bratford.

“I tried it out because of her, but I was terrible at first,” Bratford admitted with a sheepish smile. “Blocking was the only thing I could do.”

But she soon picked up the other facets of the game, and it wasn’t long before college coaches were chasing after Bratford, also a star in basketball and track.

“I had letters from all the Big Ten schools, USC, UCLA, everybody,” she said. “All the top-notch schools wanted me to play for them.”

Many of them stopped calling, however, when Bratford learned she would only be able to achieve partial qualifier status because of academic struggles.

She scored a 720 on the SAT, 100 points below the score necessary for full academic eligibility. Bratford would have to redshirt her freshman year of college and petition the NCAA to get a fourth year of eligibility.

In April 2000, just a little more than a month before she would graduate from high school, Bratford was still without a college commitment.

That’s when she met up with Brian Heffernan, her coach at the Santa Monica Renegade Volleyball Club, at a tournament in Denver.

Heffernan had been interviewing for an assistant coach position at Minnesota. Bratford had never heard of it.

“The only reason she was still available was because of her academic situation,” Heffernan said. “It was definitely a right place, right time thing.”

After redshirting her freshman season and hitting just .133 last year, Bratford found her game this season after a meeting with coach Mike Hebert before Minnesota’s match with then ninth-ranked Penn State on Oct. 19.

Over her last five matches, Bratford has posted 78 kills, 18 blocks and a .344 hitting percentage. Additionally, her grade point average is approaching 3.0.

“It’s taken her over two years to get things right,” Hebert said. “She could have gone south, but she stuck with it. It’s one of the most exciting parts of coaching to see someone do what she has done.”

Bratford’s mother came to watch her last year on Nov. 23-24 against Penn State and Ohio State – a weekend Bratford lists as the best of her life.

“I just had to look at her in the stands to make sure it was real,” Bratford said. “I’m playing for my family, and to be able to share this with her is a blessing.”

If Minnesota advances to the NCAA tournament, there’s a good chance it could wind up playing for a berth in the Final Four in California, giving Bratford’s mother, friend and role model a chance to see her play the biggest match of her career.

Now that would be a fairy tale ending.

Ben Goessling covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]