Former Don soccer star Kelsey Branson looking forward after big first year at Washington

Cathedral Catholic alum Kelsey Branson scored five goals as a freshman at Washington.
Cathedral Catholic alum Kelsey Branson scored five goals as a freshman at Washington.
(Courtesy of UW Athletics)

A year ago at this time, San Diego native Kelsey Branson was finishing a decorated high school soccer career at Cathedral Catholic with her fourth consecutive trip to the CIF Open Division Playoffs.

Although her final prep contest ended in a disappointing upset loss for the No. 2 seed Dons against Westview, her tenure at Cathedral included one CIF Open Division title, a cumulative record of 74-14-12, 60 goals and 21 assists. Twelve months later, it looks like that was only the beginning.

Kelsey Branson
Kelsey Branson
(Courtesy of UW Athletics)

She’s less than two months removed from a superb freshman season at University of Washington. The 5-10 midfielder tied for second on the team with five goals, one a 70th minute game-winner vs. Pac-12 in-state rival Washington State, was named to the conference All-Freshman team and was ranked No. 29 on Top Drawer Soccer’s list of the Top 100 Freshmen Women’s Soccer Players. Those accomplishments came despite missing a chunk of the season due to injuries and only starting the final seven games.

Washington was Branson’s No. 1 college target from the outset. Much of her father Tim’s extended family resides in the greater Seattle area and summer trips had provided an entrée to what the UW campus had to offer. Once she got on the radar of Husky Head Coach Nicole Van Dyke, it was a two-way recruiting process.

“Kelsey was great in that she generally loved UW already, she came to our camp and we continued to watch her play,” recalled Van Dyke, who guided the Huskies to the NCAA Sweet 16 in 2020, her first season at the helm. “She was persistent and resilient along the way.

“She’s obviously a good player, but her attitude is great and we always recruit character. We also talk about ‘how far a player can go’ and with Kelsey we didn’t see a ceiling. When we finally offered her a spot, she never wavered, never looked back.

“She works hard, is a great ‘team’ player and is what we call an exceptional follower—she does what’s asked and is going to want to do it because it’s the right thing—the best for the team. She also super humble, wants to get better and wants the team to be successful. Good things can happen with that kind of approach.”

Branson lives in the northeast section of the Washington campus in a two-bed dorm at McCarty Hall, overall a mix of the general student population but the home for most of the female freshmen athletes and just a five-minute walk from the campus hub.

Still energized by the results of her first competitive intercollegiate experience and enthused about what lies ahead, Branson took time recently to speak by phone about the jump from high school to college soccer, the ups-and-downs of her first season and getting some unexpected recognition.

Q—When did you know you wanted to play college soccer and when did you know you could?

BRANSON—I think it really began as soon as I started playing in high school. My mom (Ali) played college soccer at Santa Clara and early on we had the conversation about what that might look like for me. From that point on, I started doing everything I could, from improving as a player, researching schools, contacting coaches and putting myself in position to be seen by college recruiters.

Q—What made you choose University of Washington?

BRANSON—UW was always my No. 1 school. I wanted to go there. Over the years, I had a lot of exposure to it and really liked everything I saw about the school as a whole. It’s a great academic institution, the athletic department is incredible and the staff there does such a great job of providing a comprehensive experience for the student-athletes.

The soccer team’s culture was awesome and the girls on the team had such good connections with the other teams in the program that were facilitated by the department. There was a focus on developing young adults. Those were things I didn’t see at other schools. The players also had such an enjoyment being with each other while other places seemed more business-like. That really drew me in. I kept other options open just in case but when UW offered, I took it right away.

Q—How difficult was the transition from high school to college, on the soccer field and otherwise?

BRANSON—It was pretty difficult, especially in the beginning. Nothing in particular, but all the pieces. I was a little homesick, missing San Diego. We reported August 1 and school didn’t start until Sept. 23. It was two weeks of double days and then straight into the season.

We had an older team but also a ton of freshmen. I got a lot of guidance from older players as I went through the transition and help from a lot of people like our coaches. College soccer is a lot different than high school or club. You’re not necessarily playing with and against people the same age and have to be able to compete at a much higher level. It’s faster, more intense and more physical.

Outside of soccer, the biggest adjustment was that most of the responsibility was now on me. I needed to create a time schedule, where in high school every day was the same. Here, I got to choose class times, had to make sure I was getting up at the right time every day and just staying on top of integrating my various schedules.

Q—How do you like living in the dorms?

BRANSON—I actually really like it. I’ve had to share a room with my sister before so it’s not totally new. I can go over and hang out with my friends whenever I want and mix with not only my teammates but athletes from other sports and other students. There have really been no downsides or problems and it’s really nice being on campus and close to facilities and dining halls.

Q—Coming out of Cathedral Catholic, did you feel ready for what you’ve encountered at UW?

BRANSON—I think Cathedral Catholic really prepared me well, especially in the sense of the academic and soccer combination. I’m a business major and working towards getting into the undergraduate program at the Foster School of Business. One of the things I like is that the classes, rather than just studying general things, dive deep into one specific subject.

For soccer, (Head Coach) Dawn Lee prepped me for so much of what I’m doing now. She is one of the best coaches I’ve ever played for and one of the best people. She knew that I could do this and pushed me in the right direction. I tried to take in everything she said.

Q—Did you ever have any moments of doubt? Where have you improved the most?

BRANSON—There was one specific moment. Pretty early on, I had pulled both of my quad muscles and was out for a little bit. I thought I was ready to return, then re-injured it when I came back. It happened more than once and I was having a hard time, feeling like I was doing all the right things but not making any progress. There was a little bit of wondering “whether I could do this or not” and feeling like I might not be able to play.

It might not be “improvement” but when I got back in I was just more excited that I was here and got to play. Then, at some point, it just clicked that this is the real deal and I need to work extremely hard to get where I want to go. Having that motivation, I realized I had to apply myself fully each and every day. I felt I was doing that but I’ve gotten better at understanding that you can always work harder and have something to improve on. My confidence has grown and our coaches have helped greatly in that area.

Q—You scored you first goal on the road at Sacramento State—what do you remember about that?

BRANSON—That was one of the happiest moments I’ve had here. I’d been dealing with the injury stuff and not getting much playing time. My dad was there and some family. Kenzie (senior McKenzie Weinert) was dribbling, took a shot, it got deflected and headed toward center field. The ball bounced to me, I took a touch, moved past a defender and shot it into the upper left corner.

It was so amazing because my team was so happy for me and all ran over to celebrate. I ran down the bench giving high fives. It was a really cool moment.

Q—Outside of soccer, what do you enjoy most about UW? Have you had a chance to explore Seattle much?

BRANSON—One of the main things is just the campus and student life It’s always so lively and fun. When it’s not raining, everyone’s outside. The campus is beautiful, I absolutely love it.

I’ve gotten around a little bit. Some friends and I take nature walks and hikes, I’ve been to the Space Needle and Gas Works Park which overlooks the water (Lake Union) and has some great views. Pike’s Place Market near the water and University Village are other places to go shopping or get something to eat.

Q—What do you miss most about San Diego?

BRANSON—The weather, the beach. I like sunny, beachy things but in one sense missing that is nice because I get so excited when I get the chance to go home and spend time with family.

Q—How did it feel to be named as one of the Top 100 freshman female college soccer players?

BRANSON—It was a little bit of a surprise, particularly since I didn’t really have a full season. It took me a little bit to get going—first just getting to play, then going the full 90 minutes, then starting and then scoring goals. I knew I’d worked super hard to get to that point. It was a nice recognition.

Q—Overall, what kind of letter grade would you give yourself for your freshman season performance?

BRANSON—Looking at the end, I feel like I would have given myself an A. It would have been a little lower at some other points but I’m proud of how hard I worked to get to where I was when the season finished.

Right now, I’m just excited about the future. We’re going to be such a young team and have about a dozen freshmen coming in. Everyone will be hungry and motivated to prove what we can do. Our coach has such a strong belief in each of us, knows what we’re capable of and will push us to reach that potential.

We know that we didn’t really get the result we wanted this year and will work 10x harder to make the NCAA tournament next fall.