Sydney Branson, a goalkeeper on the Elon University women's soccer team, wears No. 40 for good reason.

Normally, goalkeepers stick with zero, double zero or one. Branson wears No. 40 in honor of someone else: her grandfather.

Jesse Branson's No. 40 was one of the first numbers to hang from the rafters in Alumni Gym when he and another number, that of area high school basketball coach Tommy Cole's No. 34, were retired in February of 2009.

Since Jesse's playing days with the men's basketball team from 1961-1965, the Branson family has seen two more athletes come through the Elon system — Sydney and her dad, Jesse's son, former basketball player Brian Branson.

Together, the long line of Branson's have stuck together in the area. Jesse and his wife, Barbara, whom he met during his freshman year at Elon, reside in Burlington and celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in August. Brian, who is a member of Elon's athletic Hall of Fame, his wife Sally and Sydney's two younger brothers live in Raleigh.

But each Elon women's soccer home game, the clan of Branson's usually find their way to Rudd Field to watch the Phoenix, even if Sydney isn't always in the starting 11.

"They're amazing," Sydney said. "I feel so bad. Even if I'm not playing, they're there."

Further South

Sydney's collegiate soccer career started in a different Carolina — South Carolina, that is, at Clemson University last fall after she graduated from Cary Academy in Cary, N.C. She played sparingly in her time with the Tigers in 2012 and ultimately decided to transfer from Clemson.

"I didn't have as good of an experience at Clemson as I hoped for," Sydney said.

When it came time to decide on a new school to attend, the state of North Carolina was calling her home.

"It was between Elon and (East Carolina University) in my mind," Sydney said. "For some reason, Elon just felt like the right fit and it's great because now my grandparents can come to all the games and it's a great school academically."

While Sydney decided to transfer to Elon, the decision did not come down to pressure from her family.

"I don't think it was because of my family at all," she said. "It was pretty much my own choice and I picked here."

"If that's what she wanted to do, I was happy," Jesse said. "Naturally, we love having her close to home and everything because we get to see her play. I kind of wanted her to go since I went and Brian went. I love her being here at Elon. She can't go to a better school."

"I was so excited when she said Elon was the place," Brian said. "To have my dad play here, me getting to play here and have her decide that this is where she wanted to transfer to, that was great just because having three generations is pretty unusual these days. From my perspective, it makes home games a little bit easier to get to."

Phoenix rising

Junior goalkeeper Kate Murphy has held the starting job at Elon for three years now. She won the job her freshman season and has not looked back since. With Murphy in goal for most of the season, Sydney sat on the bench waiting for her turn.

There were some occasions Branson got in the game, but they were blowout contests in which head coach Chris Neal wanted to get Murphy some rest before conference and give playing time to Sydney and fellow backup Taylor Mohr. Normally, the two would split time in the second half.

Regardless of the circumstance, one person would always be at Rudd Field on the fence: Brian.

"My parents set the trend for me because when I was in high school and playing basketball, I almost never played until my senior year, but my parents were there at every single game," Brian said. "They would be there for support."

When Murphy went down with an injury in the final minutes of Elon's win against Georgia Southern University in overtime Oct. 18, Branson came on to replace Murphy. That was one of two games Brian had missed up to that point in the season.

"I've been to almost every game," he said. "I've only missed two this year. I missed Georgia Southern and Appalachian State. My kids were sick so I didn't want to leave my wife with two sick kids at home."

Two days later at Davidson College, Branson made her first start with the Phoenix with Brian in attendance.

"It was great to have my dad here, but at the same time, he's always been here for me whether I play or not," Sydney said. "But obviously, it was awesome to get my first start and get a win off that. Win or lose, he's always there for me. He's still going to be happy after the game but it was awesome looking over to the fence and seeing him. It felt great."

Family ties

The goal for Brian is to be at every game the Phoenix play, regardless of whether Sydney is on the bench or between the pipes. It also doesn't matter whether Elon is at home or on the road.

"In Sydney's freshman of high school, she played with some girls and at the end of the year, they would kind of read some things that were most important about their soccer experience at Cary Academy and three of them said the same thing that their parents were at almost every game," Brian said. "I just felt like that while I love athletics, it really is important to see your kids whether they're playing or not playing, try to be there to support them. It's really my value I guess."

"He goes wherever we go," Sydney said. "He meets us there. I always feel so bad. He's way too nice."

A small factor Sydney said played a role in deciding Elon was the fact she can be closer to home so she can see her family and little brothers more often. Brian said Sydney doesn't really come home often, though.

"The funny thing is about it, she probably comes home once or twice a semester," Brian said. "So it's not like she's always home. She's got a lot of stuff going on, that's for sure. But we're only an hour away."

Post-game party

Sydney's support system doesn't end once the 90 minutes have finished. With Brian at every game, even if Sydney doesn't play, the two always find themselves at the local pizza place in downtown Elon, Pandora's Pies.

"Pandora's is definitely our post-game spot," Brian said.

"He's like the best dad ever," Sydney said. "The games he comes to, I don't even play in usually. But it's awesome because I get to spend time with him afterwards. And he enjoys it. I don't know why but he does."

Of course, there's always a favorite post-game meal. Luckily for the Branson's, there isn't a split decision.

"Barbecue chicken pizza," Sydney said. "It's so good! No onions, though. No onions."

"Definitely no onions," Brian said.

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