By Neil Patrick Healy
Twenty-seven percent. That’s the winning percentage of the Nevada women’s volleyball team over the past seven seasons. Their combined record in that time period is a dismal 57-148 with a 31-85 record in conference play. Nevada hasn’t finished above .500 since 2007 and their last NCAA tournament appearance was in 2005. Obviously, something had to change.
Enter first-year head coach and former University of Miami assistant Lee Nelson, who is looked to be the savior of a program that has been limping from season to season. His labor is a daunting one, not because the program is beyond saving, but because the culture around the program was as poor and the team’s performance. Whether he knows it or not, coach Nelson has already begun to right the ship.
“He’s made a lot of different changes,” said junior setter Lyndsey Anderson. “We can feel it in the way he encourages us. There’s a different attitude in the gym and I think it has positively impacted us. We’re working hard for him and that’s something we haven’t always had in the past.”
Anderson is not the only one who has noticed a difference in the team’s demeanor. Sophomore outside hitter Madison Foley also feels the shift in attitude that coach Nelson has brought to the program.
“He’s positive,” Foley said. “When I come to practice I want to be here, and I love being here. That’s how everyone else feels too because it’s just a good atmosphere. I don’t watch the clock while practice is going because [practice] is just fun and we’re getting better constantly.”
Foley went on to explain why this shift from negative to positive is such a drastic change from before Nelson took over.
“I felt like we weren’t progressing and doing things that were going to make us better. There was a lot of negative energy. It’s not that we didn’t play with heart before, but things are just different in the way we play together and the way everything works.”
Coach Nelson attributes this new positive mindset to his and his staff’s experiences as players themselves.
“Our whole staff was, at some point, a player in college, so I think we have a player’s mentality in how we coach,” Nelson said. “We’re very aware of things like giving them certain afternoons off because they’re exhausted, so we try and see what will make them better from their perspective and how to communicate.”
Other than being a player’s coach and bringing a positive vibe to the program, Nelson knows what success feels like. As a player at UC Santa Barbara, he helped his team reach the NCAA final in 1988. After playing overseas in Finland and the Netherlands, Nelson began his coaching career at the University of Nevada, Reno as a graduate assistant. He is coming off three straight NCAA appearances as an assistant with the Miami Hurricanes.
Nelson knows how to win, and to do that he’s having the team concentrate on everything except their record.
“One of the things we talked about at the beginning was that we weren’t going to be focused on wins and losses,” Nelson said. “We’re going to go out and play as hard as we can whether we’re in a hole or we’re up, and we’re just going to concentrate on our side of the net. If we can do that, then I think that winning percentage will change.”
Nelson has talent to work with in his first season. Madison Foley is coming off a spectacular freshman season with 239 kills and 243 aces, senior middle and right side hitter Sam Willoughby had 228 kills and 61 blocks last season, and Lyndsey Anderson has set up 1,190 assists in her career and has started every single game as setter her first two years.
Whether Nelson is the savior for Nevada volleyball or not has yet to be determined. Both he and his players will have to wait until they play the University of California Golden Bears in Berkeley on Aug. 28 to see if their positive approach will yield results, but Nelson has brought a refreshing change to the program. He has reminded these players that the game they dedicate themselves to is supposed to be, dare I say, fun. Nelson believes that everything else will fall into place, but only time will tell if it is enough.
Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Neilthejuiceman