Branagh returning to Minneapolis with AVP

For most volleyball players, finishing a career with two All-American honors and the sixth-most kills in Division I history would be enough. For Nicole Branagh , it was only the beginning. After traveling around the world with stops in Italy, Japan and an Olympic performance last summer in Beijing, the former Gophers athlete will return to Minnesota to compete in the AVP Johnsonville Hot Winter Nights Tour tonight at the Target Center . âÄúIâÄôve been excited all week,âÄù Branagh said about the prospect of returning to the Twin Cities. âÄúIâÄôm just thrilled. I havenâÄôt been back in a while.âÄù The California native surprised her family and friends by committing to coach Mike HebertâÄôs squad and moving to the Midwest, where she developed into one of the top volleyball players in school history. Her 2,379 kills are the most in Big Ten history, and in 2000 she was named the conferenceâÄôs co-player of the year. âÄúI loved every minute of my experience there,âÄù she said. Almost as unusual as her move to Minnesota is what brought Branagh to beach volleyball after playing indoors for most of her life. âÄúI just kind of ended up on the beach,âÄù Branagh said, adding that she picked the game up while playing overseas. âÄúI just thought it was a great way to stay in shape in the summer.âÄù Branagh committed to beach volleyball and joined the AVP in 2005 when she was named Rookie of the Year. She added a pair of Most Improved Player awards in 2006 and 2008, which along with her Olympic performance was enough for the AVP to ask Branagh to join this yearâÄôs tour. Branagh had just one request âÄî playing in the Minneapolis event. âÄúItâÄôs definitely the No. 1 event that I wanted,âÄù she said. Joining Branagh will be a collection of AVP athletes including 2008 Gold Medal winner Todd Rogers, who also will make a special return to the area. âÄúThe last time I was in Minneapolis I won my first outdoor volleyball event in 1998 and I am looking forward to returning,âÄù Rogers said in a statement. âÄúWhenever the crowds are big and the people are into it, our jobs as players are a lot easier and it is more fun for everyone.âÄù Fans attending tonightâÄôs event are in for a treat according to AVP CEO and Commissioner Leonard Armato . âÄúOn the heels of dramatic performances on the worldâÄôs stage in Beijing, this yearâÄôs tour is set to satisfy volleyball fans everywhere,âÄù Armato said in a statement. Rogers couldnâÄôt agree more: âÄúEveryone is out to beat you when you win the Olympics.âÄù Branagh can attest to that. She, along with Olympic teammate Elaine Youngs , snapped Kerri Walsh and Misty May-TreanorâÄôs 112-game winning streak just after the Gold MedalistsâÄô performance in the Olympics last year. Branagh and Youngs also collected the largest payday in AVP history by defeating Walsh and May-Treanor in 2007 to collect $100,000. But nothing takes the place of participating in the Beijing Games, according to Branagh. âÄúGetting to the Olympics was always a dream of mine,âÄù she said. And in 2008, that dream came true as Branagh and Youngs made it all the way to the quarterfinals. âÄúIt was breathtaking, really,âÄù Branagh said. âÄúWalking out in my uniform, seeing the flag and playing in front of 12,000 fans, I just canâÄôt describe it.âÄù