Competition is the source of inspiration for all athletes, but downtime is what’s pushed Eric Branagan-Franco even more.
As the co-captain and starting goalkeeper for the Cal Poly men’s soccer team, Branagan-Franco was ready to help propel the Mustangs to the playoffs last season when, with two games left, he suffered a devastating blow.
“I was playing at UC Davis,” recalls Branagan-Franco, now a senior, of Nov. 10, 2007. “There was 1:30 left in the game. I got into a tackle with a forward coming in and we both collided with one another. His cleats nailed my hand and I just pretty much broke my hand.”
Branagan-Franco sat out the rest of the year as Cal Poly missed the postseason. Co-captain and senior midfielder Anton Peterlin still remembers how it felt, as the Mustangs, without their defensive anchor, lost 4-3 to Portland on Nov. 16, 2007, sealing their fate.
“It was heartbreaking,” Peterlin says. “Him not playing that game was so hard for him. Four goals gone and he would have probably never let that happen. He was hurting pretty bad after that game.”
In the face of adversity, however, Branagan-Franco found inspiration.
“We had a lot of downfalls that season that kind of cost us not to get to the playoffs,” he said. “Those are the types of things we need to work on as a team. Breaking my hand two games before the season ended, I thought, ‘Wow, I want to get back to that, and have a full year to actually have the opportunity to go play in the playoffs.’ So it was just a motivation to succeed to the next level, to get back out here and help the team get to the playoffs this year.”
Branagan-Franco grew up in Napa following in his father’s footsteps as a goalie, hoping to someday make it big.
“It had always been one of my goals as a kid to play college ball, then hopefully from there to go to the next level,” he says.
However, at 5-foot-10, Branagan-Franco, who boasted 16 career shutouts heading into this season, had trouble getting recruited by schools and ended up walking on at Cal Poly.
“When he first came here, he was actually the fourth or fifth goalkeeper,” remembers Mustangs head coach Paul Holocher. “We noticed every day in his work ethic that although he was shorter than the other goal keepers, he was highly athletic, had great hands and was a commanding leader on the field. We gave him an opportunity that first year to start a few games and he responded with a clean-sheet shutout. Since those early days, he’s been our consistent starter and maintained that position.”
Branagan-Franco is renowned not only for fortifying the goal, but also for his leadership.
“His vocal presence is really good on the field,” Peterlin says. “He can command the defense with his voice. It’s very deep and loud. He can see everything on the field, so him being able to communicate to me or any of the defenders or the forwards is a huge thing for him because he’s our backbone.”
Ultimately, Branagan-Franco’s skills allowed him to juggle the title of co-captain with all of his other responsibilities.
“On the field, he organizes,” says senior forward Anthony Grillo. “He demands things out of you that make you a better player, but off the field, as well, he helps the younger players in what classes to take, he organizes team dinners and team-bonding things for us.”
As the goalkeeper, it’s clear to all whether Branagan-Franco is playing well.
“The funny thing about a team sport is there’s 10 people in front of him but it kind of ultimately does come down to him,” Grillo says.
Instead of stressing under that kind of pressure, Branagan-Franco seems to excel.
“He thrives under pressure,” Mustangs assistant coach Brian Reed says. “I think the bigger the moment, the better he plays.”
Holocher agreed, adding that Branagan-Franco’s confidence comes from his deft command of the game.
“He’s got very good quickness to come out and collect balls,” Holocher says. “Top players enjoy that pressure. That’s what makes them good players. He’s not scared of pressure. He likes big games and he sees them as positive challenges, so he doesn’t cower when he’s challenged. He rises to the occasion and he gets better.”
The Mustangs, ranked 24th nationally as of press time, have set a standard of having no fewer than 12 shutouts this season and making it to the Big West Conference Championship.
“As a team, we are no longer underdogs,” Branagan-Franco stresses. “Everybody kind of already knows who we are, and they’re not going to take us lightly, so we always have to be mentally prepared and just play at our best level.”
In his last year at Cal Poly, Branagan-Franco is looking to a future that he hopes will include soccer. After graduation, he says, he’ll try to play professionally.
“There’s talk about this guy having the potential to be a professional,” Holocher says. “Eric wants to keep playing and there’s a lot places to play in the world. That’s what’s great about soccer. It’s not just America. He can go to South America, Europe, Africa, the Far East. We’re going to work on getting Eric some opportunities either here in the states or abroad somewhere.”
For now, though, Branagan-Franco and his teammates will enjoy their final season together, listening to the roar of a crowd that knows and loves them.
“The greatest part about being a Cal Poly player is our fans,” he says. “Having that rich culture to the fans has really helped out. A lot of my good friends are part of the Mustang Manglers and it just gives me goose bumps every time I’m hearing my Manglers cheering for us when we’re out there playing. Life is good. You go to school, you play soccer, you can’t really complain. It’s just unreal.”