By CLAUDE SCILLEY
That’s why, when Branna MacDougall was agonizing over whose tempting scholarship offer she should accept, she wasn’t about to dismiss a candid observation from her kid sister, Brogan.
“She said, ‘I don’t want to spoil your decision, but I know you were happier when you came home from Iowa,’” Branna recalled.
The comment gave big sister pause.
“Yeah,” she thought. “I really was happier when I came home from Iowa.”
Of course. When the academic reputations and athletic programs of the suitors are comparable, what else does a young person have on which to hang her hat?
“My Dad said, ‘You need to go where you feel best because you’re the one who’s going to be living there for the next four or five years,’” Branna said.
“It came down to my decision, but my Dad and my sister definitely helped me a lot.”
When the letter arrived the other day for Branna to sign, confirming her intention of attending Iowa State University, to study engineering and run cross country and track, there was a wee celebration in the MacDougall household.
“My family set up a little signing ceremony for me; they bought balloons and streamers and made a poster,” she said. “That was really exciting. It was really cool to sign the papers; a really nice feeling, to be able to commit to where I want to go, where I know I’m going to be happiest.”
The little ceremony marked the end of a process MacDougall, though she described it as “incredible,” nonetheless was happy to see end.
“It’s so exciting to make these trips,” she said, referring not only to Iowa State, but the other two campuses she visited: Michigan and Virginia. “It’s amazing to go to these places and have these opportunities (but) when it came down to the final week, when I had to make my decision by Wednesday or Thursday, and it’s Sunday—that whole week was kind of chaotic. I was really stressed out, but other than that, it was fun to go to all these places and see the programs that were top in the country and meet girls who have won NCAA titles.
“It was a super-cool experience, for sure, but it’s finally over and now I can look to the future and know that’s where I’m going to be.”
MacDougall said she fell in love not only with the university campus, but with Ames, a city of about 60,000 that a number of publications have recognized as among the best college towns in America. A half hour’s drive from the state capital in Des Moines, Ames is not quite dwarfted by the university—enrolment 36,000—but it does, as MacDougall put it, revolve around the university and, it is, as she describes it, “super cute.”
“Everyone thinks, oh, it’s just corn fields, but it’s so beautiful,” she said. “The town has such a nice, warm feeling to it. It’s really pretty, and everyone is so friendly.’
MacDougall said she liked the other places she visited, “but I didn’t love them as much as I love Iowa.”
“I really clicked with all the girls there," she said. "They made me feel like I was already part of the team. I was just a recruit but … even after I left, they were all texting me or messaging me, on Facebook and Twitter. After I left, my two hosts wrote a letter for me. It was just so sweet, and showed how well the girls look out for each other. That’s what I really liked about it.
“The coach is amazing. She’s Canadian … and I really bought into her program and what they’re trying to do there. They have really high goals and I’d like to be a part of that.
“It seems like the perfect place for me.”
Coach Andrea Grove McDonough, from Winnipeg, was all-American at University of Minnesota, and in the mid-2000s, as one of Canada’s premier 5,000 and 10,000 metres runners, was a member of seven national teams. She previously coached at University of Connecticut, where her athletes established school records in the 800, 1,000, 1,500, 5,000, 10,000 metres and 3,000-metre steeplechase.
That’s a history that appeals to McDougall—“she’s developed girls a minute and a half faster over 3 k”—but above that she was impressed by what she called McDonough’s “personal” approach, which she said is different from the typical NCAA coach.
“A lot of the coaches are just business, but she is different. The girls go over to her house for dinner; she’s almost like a mother figure to them all. That really stood out to me, how much she cares for her athletes. It’s more than just money and a job and get to the highest level. It’s more than that. She cares a lot about her athletes.”
Which, for a young woman leaving home for the first time, was not an insignificant consideration.
“It’s really important for me that I have people I can lean on, to get me through the transition away from home, away from my family,” MacDougall said. “I feel like it will be a lot easier with girls like that around me and a coach like that.”
Last year, Iowa State was second at the NCAA Division 1 women’s cross-country championship, though Saturday the Cyclones slipped to 24th.
“Their goal is to win titles,” MacDougall said, “and I want to be in a program where they’re trying to win an NCAA title, where the girls’ mentality is (to be) dedicated and ready to work as hard as they can.
“That’s a really good environment to be in, where everyone wants to work really hard to get to where they want to go, and they want to go to really big places.”
MacDougall spoke of the tremendous depth of the team, and the training benefits of being part of such a group, but she said it’s not intimidating to be going into a milieu where her OFSAA cross-country gold medal and regional records on the track will no longer be that big a deal.
“I know I’m not going to be a superstar,” she said, “but I’m going to work hard and try jump into the middle of the pack and work my way up, try and get on their travel team. Just try to work as hard as I can work.
“At the end of the day, that’s all I can do. I know that will get me where I want to go.”
“Like any person, I would love to go to the Olympics; make a world championship team for track,” she said. “I want to be part of a team that wins NCAA cross country. I want to be a really strong member, one that helps the team.
“Eventually, by the end of my university career, I’d like to be mixing it up front with the top girls in the NCAA. I don’t know if I’ll get there, but it’s a goal that I have, to try and get up there. I know what these girls do, the work they put into it, and I’m definitely ready to do that.”
For now, though, there’s the matter of her final semester of high school at Regiopolis Notre Dame.
“There are some things I need to finish before I take this next step, but I’m definitely ready to take it,” MacDougall said. “I’m ready to go to university.
“It will be hard to push through but I have some more goals I want to get to before high school is over, for running, so I’m going to work on staying healthy and finishing up here before I go.”