Branagh’s career night leads to Minnesota victory

by Brian Stensaas

Earlier this week, Minnesota volleyball coach Mike Hebert said he wasn’t sure where his team’s blocking had gone.
After all, the Gophers managed just 10 total team blocks in last weekend’s split with No. 10 Wisconsin and Northwestern.
Wednesday night, the question was answered.
The once-lost was found Wednesday night at the Sports Pavilion. The eighth-ranked Gophers defeated Iowa for the tenth-straight time 15-8, 15-10, 15-6 behind a solid blocking effort.
But unlike the last few contests, this was a Hawkeye team ready to play.
“This is by far the best Iowa team I’ve seen in four years,” Hebert said. “We knew they would be playing with a much more confident mentality and they did.”
The Hawkeyes weren’t the only ones.
With a bit more of a jump in their step, the Gophers’ front line completely dominated the nets. Paced by Charnette Fair, who finished the match with 12 kills and tying a career high 11 blocks, Minnesota finished the match with 17 total team blocks, by far the best of the season.
“I felt a big difference tonight,” said Fair, who tallied her first-ever double-double in the match. “I could see my hands better and pick up hitters faster.”
Minnesota’s blocking helped contain what Iowa offered. The Hawkeyes’ main attack, Fabiana De Abreu was limited to just seven kills on 20 attempts.
But the game ball, rather, the career ball must be handed to outside hitter Nicole Branagh.
The 6-foot-1 senior smacked her 2,000th career kill against the Hawkeyes, her ninth of the match en route to a match-high 17.
The milestone came on the 12th point of the second game, right in the middle of a Gophers’ rally.
After being up 9-3 in the game, a brief Minnesota breakdown allowed Iowa to crawl back and knot the game at 10-10. Hebert called a much needed timeout and the Gophers came back strong to win the game 15-10.
With Branagh’s career mark coming while the action was so intense, there was little time to celebrate the feat. But there was a hint of excitement in the air.
After she recorded the kill, the PA system announced her accomplishment, to which team captain Lindsey Berg offered a congratulatory high-five. But play quickly resumed and the gesture waited until the end of the game, which was, fittingly, a Branagh kill.
“It’s not very often you get to sit in the bench and watch a player you’ve coached for four years reach the 2,000 kill mark,” Hebert said. “To have someone do that right in front of your eyes is kind of special, my hat is tipped to Nicole.”
Branagh’s 17 kills moved her to fifth place all-time on the Big Ten list with 2,008 and third on the all-time team list. Thanks to her, the Gophers become the first team in NCAA history with three players over 2,000 career kills.
She has accumulated 10 or more kills in 57 straight Big Ten matches.
“I look at it more as a team thing,” a humble Branagh said. “I wouldn’t have been able to get (to 2,000) without many other people setting and passing the ball.”

A night for the record books
Along with Fair’s first ever double-double and matching a career high 11 blocks, two others notched career marks Wednesday.
Branagh added to her special night by compiling a personal-best 21 digs. Lisa Aschenbrenner also got into the mix by recording a career-high eight blocks.

Brian Stensaas covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected].