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The Daily Tar Heel

Branam's Tenacity Fuels Tar Heels

Seconds later, a Virginia offender rebounded the ball and attempted to lift a shot over a seemingly out-of-position Branam.

Furiously, the senior backpedaled, leaping just in time to snag the ball.

It's this kind of tenacity that comforts her team and frustrates her opponents.

"The defense knows if a ball is knocked through and a player is chasing after it for the other team, there is a huge risk for that player running through because Branam is coming," said North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance. "And you don't want to get hit by Jenni Branam, trust me. She is like a freight train. She's fearless, and you're going to get hurt more than she is."

But Branam is not immune to scrapes. As a junior, she suffered a shattered kneecap during UNC's regular season game against Duke that required surgery. This season, the injury has given Branam a good deal of trouble, causing her to bench herself from several games.

UNC's 2-1 win against Virginia on Saturday was the first time Branam has seen quality minutes since mid-September. She played less than 40 minutes, a majority of which came in the second half. And on more than one occasion, she spared the Tar Heels from a tie-game situation.

"I love playing again," Branam said. "It's a lot of fun. It's real exciting. I'm having a lot of fun with soccer again. It still hurts, but I'm getting a little more minutes everytime."

The knee became a problem for Branam this season after UNC's 4-1 win against Washington on Sept. 8. Since then, freshman Aly Winget had stepped into the starting role.

"The minutes are in her lap," Dorrance said. "If she wants to play 90 minutes a game, that's her prerogative. Obviously we're going to pay tribute to Aly Winget because of the service she's given us."

The injury also has forced Branam to find a more creative way to train, as running and other strenuous exercise have complicated her healing.

So instead of her goalie gloves, the senior straps on roller blades three to four times a week and plays roller hockey with Dorrance and a few others, something the coach typically encourages his players to do in the off season only.

"She loves hockey, she's a great player," Dorrance said. "The hockey doesn't hurt her as much as soccer training does, and we're hoping that between the hockey and playing in games, we can get her fit."

Sure, the risk factor is there, but it isn't too far removed from the same risk involved in soccer. After all, contact is contact, and Branam has seen her fair share guarding UNC's net.

Branam has been the starting goalkeeper for the Tar Heels for four years. She also is a member of the U.S. National Team as a pool player and has earned five caps.

But the senior from Placentia, Calif. says there's no special method to her performance.

"I don't have a special preparation," she said. "I just try to have fun. If you have fun playing soccer then you'll be good at it."

And while Branam might not have a set routine, she brings something more than just her skill level to the game.

"There's something about her," said senior defender Leslie Gaston. "It's an attitude. You know she's going to win every ball she goes up against. And she's going to risk any part of her body to do it."

The Sports Editor can be reached at sports@unc.edu.

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