After a tough loss to the South High School Varsity Softball Team on May 9 at Creekview Park, a small group gathered in the bleachers to celebrate the victory of one of Henry High’s players, Senior Eliana Branch, who recently received Henry’s Athena Award—the school’s highest honor for a female athlete. The Athena Award recognizes athletic achievement as one factor in the overall character and leadership of a woman like Athena, the goddess of Greek mythology known for strength, courage, wisdom and enlightenment.
Eliana’s journey to this recognition began at birth. Her mother Becky Branch explained, “For three days nurses at the hospital pressured me to get a name on a birth certificate. My other children have strong biblical names, Matthew, Joseph and Noah. And then I understood that God had answered me with this incredible baby girl. Eliana is the female form of Elijah, which means ‘God has answered me’.”
Her three older brothers were, and are still, transformed by their younger sister, who always accompanied them on activities including baseball, golf, soccer and dance. In a tight knit family, Eliana refers to them as “my heroes.” The Branch children were raised to participate in sports and arts. Eliana performed in both percussion and piano. Her athletic career began on the soccer field in the fourth grade. She also golfed with her brothers.
By the time of her freshman year at Henry High School, Eliana was very familiar with fellow members at St. Olaf Church who also attended and competed in athletics at Henry and were also awarded the coveted Athena Award: Hannah Webb ‘16 and Rumyana Hulmequist ‘12. Eliana wanted to model their passion to succeed in the same fashion. Henry coaches would teach and develop her skills. Eliana says, “Coach Wincek taught me about softball. She was strict without being mean. I learned the meaning of a sacrifice bunt and how to advance others around the bases.” Eventually Eliana would be known for stopping any hits that came her way at third base, even when a bad hop sprained her fingers and wrist, stopping her summer RBI and Park Board League seasons at the end of her junior year.
“When I went out for basketball in my junior year Coach Davis nicknamed me “Bulldog” to bring me out of my shell and help me be more aggressive,” Eliana says. That strategy, along with teammate encouragement, paid off in that same junior year when Eliana’s long distance shot scored three points against Watertown Mayer.
A wannabe high school volleyball player herself, who was too bashful to try out for the sport, Becky Branch marvels at her daughter’s courage and selflessness, “Eliana has this quiet confidence. She is a leader who does her own thing, but leads by showing compassion for all.” When Henry needed a goalie in her senior year, Eliana took on the challenge and reveled in her success.
“Sports taught me how to balance my time, and work with others as a team player,” Eliana explained. She plans to continue those life lessons in lifelong intramurals including soccer, softball and basketball. Though she hasn’t yet declared a major at the University of Minnesota, the four year honor roll student is certain that it will tap her passion and talents in art and science. Eliana’s father, David Branch, is confident of Eliana’s future plans, “Eliana has a quiet, remarkable determination that guides her path. I admire her. She will be successful in whichever talents she chooses to share.”
Becky Branch almost didn’t get to address the questions of why she has been blessed with such amazing children, and how to raise a daughter to receive an Athena Award. Eliana’s Great Aunt Sue Quist quickly interjected, “You showed up. You were always there for all their activities.” Sue named a long list of Eliana’s involvement at St. Olaf Lutheran Church (Eliana is the 5th generation to attend St. Olaf) including outdoor canoeing activities up north, Sunday School teaching, and the 2015 ELCA National Youth Leadership gathering where Eliana participated in community service in impoverished areas of Detroit. This record of church involvement did not go unnoticed by officials at St. Olaf who awarded her with the Lucy Hulme Scholarship.
Eliana is also involved in social justice issues and has participated in protests for Black Lives Matter and against the pipelines of the Dakotas. In March she participated in the March for Our Lives to protest gun violence with her father David Branch, her aunt and grandparents. It was the first such protest for her grandparents. Eliana reflects with gratitude at her opportunity to share that moment with them.
After reflecting with the group on Eliana’s church and community involvement, Becky Branch added, “I never tried to mold my children. I’m an advocate for my children—if parents don’t take on that role, no one else will. With Eliana in particular I was more vocal about not allowing herself to be bullied. I think I helped teach her how to be tough.”