Judges track star Branch given Wingate awards

By Joseph Staszewski

Denise Branch received a culture shock when she arrived at Benjamin Cardozo, but it may have been the best thing to happen to her track career.

She transferred there from Midwood during her sophomore year and immediately she was training and competing with a different class of athletes, who have more natural ability. Branch joined a team that included Sabrina Southerland (Georgetown) and Alexis Panisse (Tennessee).

It was intimidating at first, but motivational in the end.

“It was definitely a big change coming from one program to the next,” said Branch, who is headed to Illinois in the fall. “Some of the athletes, they were practicing at my race pace when I got there. It was a challenge to match their pace.”

That’s why it meant so much to earn All-American honors in the 2-mile race indoors and be named the PSAL Wingate Award winner in the girls’ cross-country and indoor track and field category Monday at a ceremony at the Brooklyn Marriott. The honor is given to the top senior student-athlete in each respective sport.

Throughout her high school career, Branch has put her name among the Cardozo’s top runners.

“She was following behind Sabrina and Alexis,” Judges head Coach Gail Emmanuel said of being named an All-American. “They all had different events, but similar type of events. She wanted to claim something to say, ‘I did this.’ [I] think she wanted that same type of accomplishment.”

Branch, with the help of Emmanuel and assistant Coach Ray James, was a three-time PSAL cross-country city champion. This year she won and set PSAL records in the 3,000 meters (9:47.25) and also took home gold in the 1,500 meters at the indoor championships.

Her 2-mile time of 10:27.48 at the New Balance Nationals was the best in the state this season and earned her All-American honors. Outdoors she took home the city championship in the 1,500 meters with a mark of 4:43.73. Branch was proudest of being an All-American like some of her former teammates.

“It was very far-fetched in the beginning of the indoor season,” she said. “I didn’t think I had a chance. Once I started training, I knew it was something to shoot for.”

With graduation on the horizon, it brings the realization that her high school career has come to an end. But Branch is excited to move on to the next level at Illinois.

“I’m looking forward to being in a new environment and running in the Big 10, just starting a new chapter in my career,” she said.

More from Around New York