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Dakota State Finds “Supernatural Strength” To Carry On After Passing Of Dave Branco

Trojans Play Into NAIA Tournament After Seeing Mentor Pass Away
Published: Mar. 3, 2021 at 8:33 PM CST
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MADISON, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - When David Moe was hired from Mayville State to take over the Dakota State women’s basketball program, he knew he wanted Jamal Branco to be his assistant.

“Call him up and said hey, got a head job, and he was like where at? And I said Dakota State!” Moe says.

“And I said no quicker than I can blink. Dakota State knocked me out of the playoffs my junior and senior year. So my last two years of college basketball. It was just a place I did not want to go back to. I had a long conversation with my dad because you just love being around the game. And quite honestly you can’t play forever but you can coach forever and be around the game. And once he said that I knew that’s where I needed to be.” DSU Assistant Jamal Branco says.

The only thing harder than selling Jamal on the job was rebuilding a Trojan team that went 4-23 in their second season. Yet for Branco’s father Dave, it was the perfect kind of challenge.

Father of assistant coach Jamal Branco was a spiritual mentor to Trojans.
Father of assistant coach Jamal Branco was a spiritual mentor to Trojans.(Dakota News Now)

“He had a passion for people to just help them reach their goals.” Jamal says.

“His dad was our biggest fan. Even when we only won four games that year he was our loudest cheerleader. He came to a few of our games. He felt like almost another coach or another teammate.” DSU Junior Jenni Giles says.

After a visit to Branco’s Florida home during a tournament last season, Dave found a new way to inspire, starting a new tradition.

“Before each game we’d call him in our team huddle and he would pray with us and he would get us pumped up and fired up for the game!” Giles says.

“When Dave Branco got done praying you wanted to run through a wall! He talked a ton about the supernatural strength that’s inside each and every one of you. That every single person has a gift. Every single person is special, is amazing, and to let that out and let that shine.” Moe says.

“The passion behind it had you so locked in and ready to go and feeling something that you couldn’t explain.” Jamal says.

This season the Trojans were finding the best in themselves, winning 22 straight games and earning the right to host the North Star Conference Tournament.

And there was no doubt who would be there.

“Once I told him I go ‘dad, I think we’ve got a chance to do this thing’. He goes alright, when’s conference tournament? I’m coming. And that was it!” Jamal says.

Father of assistant coach Jamal Branco passed away giving team a pregame prayer on February 25,...
Father of assistant coach Jamal Branco passed away giving team a pregame prayer on February 25, 2021.(Dakota News Now)

Dave and Jamal’s mom Julie flew up from Florida last Monday and Dave prayed with the team prior to their opening round win over Presentation the following day.

Two nights later the Trojans were playing Jamal’s alma mater, Mayville State, in the semifinals.

“He came in to pray with us just like he always did.” Giles says.

“He was talking about the strength that our team had shown through our 21-game win streak and everything.” Moe says.

“He was mid-prayer and he just hit the floor.” Jamal says.

“He fell into Lexi Robson and Elsie Aslesen and they kind of caught him and moved out of the way and he landed on a bag. And everyone thought he had just essentially passed out. We kind of shoed the team out to the floor. Jamal stayed in there with him. Our athletic trainers were in the locker room as well and they started CPR.” Moe says.

“We didn’t really know fully what was going on. But we knew we had a game to play and that’s what he would have wanted us to do.” Giles says.

Taking the floor 12 minutes after Dave had collapsed, the Trojans would go on 72-55.

“That was the hardest game I’ve ever coached. I knew when the game had started and Jamal never came out I knew that there was something very, very wrong.” Moe says.

The team stayed together longer after the game.

“As he passed it was......I’ve got to carry the torch. I knew that my dad would want me to tell the players that he was proud of them. And that he loved them.” Jamal says.

“Our hearts just broke. We we saw coach Branco’s face walking into the locker room, I mean, we knew.” Giles says.

“They said it was either a heart attack or a blood clot. Those were the only two catastrophic things it could have been.” Moe says.

Amid the grief was the reality that they still had to play in their conference championship game 48 hours later.

“It was definitely something we had to kind of search really deep down and find that next wave of energy.” Giles says.

Some of that would come from Jamal who took strength from his family.

“I was not going to be on the sideline. And it was more because I didn’t want to be a distraction to the players. And my mom and my brother both looked at me at the same time and said we’re going to be all right. But you’ve got a job to finish.” Branco says.

And it would be his brother Jarrod taking his father’s place to pray with the team before the game.

“And it was number one, we love to compete. Number two we love the game of basketball. And number three, we love God. And that’s how he started his prayer.” Jamal says.

“It was what was needed and it was emotional and there was a few tears. But it was good to hear what he had to say.” Giles says.

With the Branco’s and much of Madison cheering them on, the words of the prayers Dave had said before so many games would come to life with the Trojans entering the fourth quarter trailing by 12.

“Ferocious and supernatural strength.” Giles says.

“From what our players, knowing the spirit of Dave Branco was with us, we never thought we were going to lose that game.” Moe says.

Dakota State finished on a 30-10 run and won 80-72.

“Quite honestly that game on Saturday was a blur. I don’t remember anything. All I remember is the buzzer going off at the end. The first thing in my head is I said ‘dad, we did it’. And I was looking for something to squeeze.” Jamal says.

“I’ve never been squeezed harder in my life! I grabbed him, told him I loved him, told him that he’s family. And I just told him that his dad would be so proud and his dad is celebrating in heaven right now.” Moe says.

With son Jamal on the bench, Trojans won the title 48 hours after Dave Branco's passing.
With son Jamal on the bench, Trojans won the title 48 hours after Dave Branco's passing.(Dakota News Now)

In death, as in life, Dave Branco helped the Trojans find the best in themselves, and paying that forward is how his legacy will live on.

“He wanted to touch everyone he met, everyone he talked to. He wanted to make their day better, make their life better. If I can have even the smallest of impact on someone, I think that’s pretty amazing.” Giles says.

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