A year ago, Caldwell County’s Tripp Branch was coming off a prolific season as the Tigers’ starting punter, and was averaging a shade over eight points per game on the court.
Fast forward to now, where the 6-3, 195-pound senior-to-be is now fielding both college football and basketball interest — most of it coming from way out of town — and it’d be fair to say a lot has changed.
In 2019, he became quarterback Russ Beshear’s top target in the second half of the year, and finished with a team-best 29 catches, 423 yards and five touchdowns to help Caldwell County finish 8-4.
And then he went right into basketball season, where his 12.7 ppg (second-best for the Tigers behind Adarius Riley) was mostly propelled by his 79 3-pointers at a robust 39.7% clip (26th in Kentucky).
Solid numbers, for sure. But what’s starting to separate him from the pack for an athletic scholarship?
See, when he’s not working out for next season, mowing yards to maintain his small business or studying to improve on his already impressive ACT score (he’s holding a 25 with a 4.0 GPA), Branch has been using this time under quarantine to ship out his football and basketball highlights to anyone willing to look.
And it’s yielding some serious dividends.
“I sent out my emails and have a couple recruiting profiles, but I feel like the quarantine has definitely helped that,” he said. “I’ve taken really good advantage of sending out my film during this time, because coaches have been stuck at home. So this is a perfect time for them to look at film. I don’t know if that’s a factor on why they’re coming from so far down to Kentucky right now, but it’s kind of surprised me a little bit. There’s some schools up in Massachusetts and Maine (contacting), and if you’d asked me that a year ago, I’d probably be looking at you crazy. No way did I think those schools up there would be contacting me.
“But I sent out the film. And there are high-academic schools looking for good athletes and high-academic players. I’m definitely glad they’re contacting me, and it’s going to come down to whether I want to go way up there, or stay close to home.”
It helps that Branch is sincerely interested in a STEM-like career (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) — perhaps radiology — and his first two offers have come from Rose-Hulman (Terre Haute, Indiana) and Saint John’s (Collegeville, Minnesota) football, in what is, respectively, the top engineering school in the country, followed by the winningest DIII program in history.
From there, Branch has garnered Junior Day football invites from most of the Ivy League football circuit, including Princeton, Yale, Cornell, Columbia and Harvard, and a host of other schools like Johns Hopkins, Rochester, Rhodes and the much-closer Centre College have recently gotten involved.
And while he’s “leaning” more toward the pigskin, he’s not yet ruling out playing just basketball, just football, or maybe even both at the next level.
In fact, he’s had several coaches tell him both are very possible if he so chooses. Not to mention, he’s already fielded some basketball-only phone calls from the staff at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, as the Fighting Scots are looking to somehow replace the graduated Eric Demers and his NCAA-best 32.4 ppg.
“I’ve always loved football,” Branch said. “I’ve always loved basketball.”
After spending middle school playing both, Branch chose basketball over football during his 2017-18 freshman season, in hopes of honing his hoops acumen.
By sophomore year, through a little coaxing from his friends (and the desire to learn from a Paducah Sun All-Purchase performer now at Western Kentucky for football), he couldn’t resist the field any longer.
“I wanted to get behind Oliver Parker,” Branch said of his former teammate. “And I knew if I played behind him, I knew I would get some really good experience.”
Then in 2019, Branch started getting first-team reps at wide receiver.
Naturally, it still took some time to acclimate. But when running back De’Eric Hollowell kept exploding game after game, opposing defenses had little choice but to start truly honoring Caldwell County’s running game.
And that led to more opportunity for the Beshear-to-Branch connection.
“Coming into junior season, we just knew we were going to be a running-based team,” Branch said. “Because (Hollowell) is really, really good. And fast. He’d started for a couple of years. And, of course, we came in knowing we were losing Joby (Jaggers), so we were going to a run offense this year. And so I came in prepared for that, and was getting my blocking skills up and all that.
“I didn’t start off real hot. De’Eric was running the ball crazy good, and so there really was no reason to pass much during the beginning of the season. But toward the end of the year, teams really started noticing him and keying in on him, and that opened up the opportunities for me.”
Perhaps a few more than he originally thought possible.
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