Branson, senior leadership put Cathedral girls among prep soccer elite
With just one month of the 2021-22 high school soccer season in the books, the Cathedral Catholic girls team is sporting a glossy 14-1 record, has won a pair of high quality tournaments (its own Butch Lee Memorial Tournament and Excalibur Tournament in Orange County), finished second in another and outscored its opponents, 55-12. It’s not too soon to count Cathedral among a select few with legitimate section-winning aspirations.
Ultra-experienced Head Coach Dawn Lee has guided Cathedral teams to 11 CIF titles, including the 2020 Open Division crown, so expectations are always high, but what the Dons have done to date has even her doing a bit of a double take.
“Yes and no,” said Lee when asked if she was surprised by what her club has shown thus far. “I thought we’d be strong but not that we would have reached the finals of three tournaments this early and been so solid in the process.” She points to motivation and intangibles as catalysts behind the torrid start.
“We have 11 seniors, so the core group is super close and has a real drive as a result of not winning the CIF Championship last year after doing it in 2020,” reasoned Lee. “This is also a really, really fun group. They’re super talented and our new girls are already contributing—we’ve just been clicking.”
Senior co-captains Kelsey Branson and Mia Adams, both four-year starters who have been friends since meeting through soccer as 5-year-olds, are among the key veterans Lee credits with setting the right environment this season. Center back Adams admits to a few anxious moments heading into her first year as a captain.
“I knew we were capable of doing great things but we had lost five or six seniors who were all starters and played really significant leadership roles,” said Adams, who’s committed to Santa Clara next year. “And as a senior leader, I was a little worried about the new responsibilities and team dynamic.
“But we’ve always had great chemistry and, from the first game to now, it’s been all I could have asked for. I think we’re strong up-and-down the field and after last year, I know all of us, especially the seniors, are always pushing just a little harder to win another CIF title.
“That (CIF) was one of the best feelings ever and we’ve tried to let our younger teammates know just how great that feeling is.”
Branson, a 5-foot-10, University of Washington-bound forward, has elevated her game to otherworldly status during the Dons’ season-opening run. She came into 2021-22 with extremely creditable three-year goal (30) and assist (9) totals but has already racked up an amazing 21 goals (nearly 40% of the team count) and 10 assists.
“Right now, Kelsey is playing at another level,” said an admiring Lee. “She’s played several different positions over the course of her career and, honestly, I could put her anywhere on the field and be comfortable.
“She reads the game like nobody I’ve ever seen. She really understands the flight of the ball and knows how to position her body accordingly which has a lot to do with why she scores so much.”
Talent is always important but it may be secondary to some of Branson’s more subtle characteristics, traits that only coaches or teammates can truly appreciate.
“Kelsey works so hard and is so humble—listening to her, you’d never know how good she is,” said Lee. “She’s been invaluable to our program not just with her athletic contributions but through her sheer enjoyment of being a Don player. When your best players love everything about being a high school athlete and are all in with what you’re trying to do, it makes a huge difference. She embodies what a high school athlete should be.”
With the beginning of Western League play fast-approaching and the CIF Playoffs only six weeks away, Branson took time recently to share her thoughts on the current season, the benefits of high school soccer and her decision to attend University of Washington.
Q—Having the pandemic cast a fairly substantial shadow over the last two high school soccer seasons may help explain why it feels like you’ve been at Cathedral “forever.” What does it feel like to you and have you contemplated the end of your high school career?
BRANSON—It does seem like a long time and I’ve played so many games—but I’m so thankful for the opportunity and kind of wish I could have a few more years.
I have thought about the end a little bit and when I do, I get really sad because it’s been such a good time. Having said that, I’m really trying to stay focused on right now. I’m sure I’ll think more about that later.
Q—It seems like you’ve done it all at Cathedral—what does this final season mean to you?
BRANSON—For me, I think this is probably the most important and special season. It’s my senior year and Dawn (Lee) keeps telling us what an amazing group of seniors we have. I want to make sure I appreciate every moment because I’m with a group of such incredible people and that makes everything 100 times better.
Q—Speaking of your coach, what makes playing for Dawn Lee unique?
BRANSON—I’ve played soccer for a long time and Dawn is probably the best coach I’ve ever had. She makes us better players and better people. Her priority is our team culture and making sure we’re all successful as part of the team. There’s an emphasis on having a good time and bringing passion into our game.
Q—For years, many of the top high school age soccer players have chosen developmental club programs in lieu of playing for their high school teams. Why did you make the choice to play at Cathedral and how has that decision worked out?
BRANSON—Before freshman year, my best friend and teammate, Mia Adams and I talked about the high school vs. club dilemma and we both decided to play high school soccer. It was a hard decision. We were thinking about the future and we wanted to play college soccer. The accepted idea is that you have a better chance of being seen and recruited by choosing the club route.
I talked with my mom, who had played soccer for her high school, and she said it was one of the best experiences of her life. I didn’t want to regret not playing high school soccer and it has turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made.
Q—As a senior, you’re one of the team’s co-captains. How have your evolved in that leadership role and is it something you’re comfortable with?
BRANSON—I’m not real vocal but I try to lead by example and reiterate and support what Dawn is asking us to do. Over the years at Cathedral, I’ve watched the different leaders on this team and they have helped shape me as I become a leader myself. I’ve drawn something from all of them.
My freshman year, one of our seniors, Kelsey Oen, who’s now at Pacific, kind of took me under her wing. She said she saw me as a future leader and served as a great role model for me. What’s been really important for Mia and me is that all of our teammates have been so supportive of what we are trying to do.
Q—What do you know now that you wish you would have known as a freshman?
BRANSON—I wish I would have had the confidence I do now. When playing with and against older players, I was definitely more hesitant. I wish I could have told myself to have the confidence to just go out and do what I knew I was capable of doing.
Q—You’ll be playing at University of Washington next fall. What went into your decision-making process?
BRANSON—My thinking was that I wanted to go to a place that not only had high intensity soccer but a great team culture. After seeing in high school what it could be, I wanted to be in a similar type of safe, happy place that prioritized team culture and attitude.
UW is a very solid soccer program and I plan on majoring in business and management. My grandparents as well as several aunts and uncles are successful UW graduates who have talked highly about the opportunities they had coming out of the university. I’ve been able to meet with a lot of the players on the team and they’ve told me that the athletic department provides strong academic support and there’s a nice balance between athletics and academics.
Q—You also play on the beach volleyball team at Cathedral. How did that come about and has it had any effect on your soccer game?
BRANSON—I’ve played beach volleyball all three years. I had played with Mia when we were younger and always enjoyed it. My sister, McKenna, was a volleyball player at Cathedral and she suggested I give it a try. It’s been fun and relaxing, overall a great experience. I’m am planning to play again this spring.
I kind of think it has had a positive effect on my soccer. In beach volleyball you have to be quick and scrappy which has definitely helped my reaction time on the soccer field. You also do a lot of conditioning in sand which has improved my speed.
Q—What has been most memorable about your time at Cathedral Catholic?
BRANSON—The community. Everyone is so loving and accepting and you’re also around people with the same drive and same goals—academically and athletically. Being around other people who want to achieve is very motivating.
Translating that directly to soccer, we have a team that is so connected. Because of the situation with club soccer, with players coming and going, it’s really hard for a lot teams to have the type of connection we do.
We work hard and compete hard but high school soccer has shown me how enjoyable it is when you’re playing for each other.
Everybody wants to be here, wants to do it for each other, our coach and the seniors. You can have a team that’s not necessarily the most athletically talented but if you have the right culture and effort, you can still get the outcomes you want.
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