A well-lit office overflows with papers and sketched out play designs. The faded formations and assignments are forever sketched into pieces of paper and drawing boards. Pictures of teammates, coaches, and rosters line his desk, and the silver and blue wolf shines in the front. Lee Nelson, the head coach for the women’s volleyball team at the University of Nevada, Reno, is preparing for possibly his greatest season yet as head coach. With star returners, as well as some fresh new faces, Nelson understands what is at stake in the future. So, he rubs his hands over his face, grabs his clipboard and whistle, and heads to volleyball practice. He knows his team has a shot to take the Mountain West and come back to being the number one team in the conference. Best of all, he will be the one to lead them there, and this is his story.
Lee Nelson, a Southern California native, found his love for volleyball in the 1980s when he played in high school in Santa Barbara. Finding his groove as a middle blocker, Nelson quickly began to grow and became a two-time varsity starter before his graduation in 1985. Right after his high school years, Nelson continued to grind on the hardwood and stayed home to play volleyball for UCSB. The young star continued to shine and was even offered a slot at the USA Men’s National Volleyball Team tryouts in 1986-1989. After his collegiate years passed, Nelson went abroad and played in Finland and the Netherlands for a couple years. Yet, a time came where the playing faded and Nelson found an empty gap in his life he desperately needed a way to fill.
“I really had no idea what to do after that. I didn’t really know what my plan was, or where I was going at that time,” Nelson said. “So eventually, I found myself back in the love I had always been, and that was Volleyball.”
Volleyball came back into Nelson’s life through coaching. Nelson took his skills to Fresno State in 2008, where he was an assistant coach for their volleyball team. After one year with the bulldogs, Nelson decided to go home and began coaching for the UCSB Men’s Volleyball team as the associate head coach. During this time, Nelson also contributed to the women’s team as an unpaid assistant coach. During his time there, Nelson helped lead UCSB to some of its best seasons in history, as well as to the NCAA Championship Match for the first time in years. Grabbing national attention for his amazing coaching skills, Nelson was soon picked up by the University of Miami in 2012, where he was an assistant coach there for three years. Under his guidance, the Hurricanes made three straight NCAA tournament appearances, the school’s longest record.
“Miami was an amazing school. I learned a lot of things there, and made a lot of memories,” the Santa Barbara native said. “But it wasn’t what I wanted, and that’s what brought me to Nevada.”
Doug Knuth, Nevada’s Athletic Director, found Nelson and asked him to come coach the Wolf Pack as their Head Coach. Nelson packed his bags, cleaned up his office and flew to the Biggest Little City in 2015, where he claimed the title of head coach at the University of Nevada, Reno.
“It was a chaotic transition to Nevada,” Nelson said. “I had to get a whole staff together, begin to recruit players, come up with plans, ideas and a whole new life. There were times where it was pretty overwhelming, no question.”
Nelson gathered his troops and took to his first season with Nevada in 2015. During that first season, Nelson led Nevada to its most successful campaign since 2010. Nevada went 13-17 overall and finished with a 12-18 overall record and a 7-11 conference mark for a seventh place finish in the Mountain West. The seven conference victories and seventh place finish in the Mountain West were both program bests since joining the league in 2012.
“When you first start coaching, you always think you’re doing the right thing and that your choice is the best,” Nelson said. “Looking back on my first season, I really think we all grew as a team and I as a coach. I learned a lot of things, and I made sure I used it to grow.”
Nelson took his own advice to heart and came back in 2016 to lead Nevada to its first winning season in over a decade. Hitting a 13-game win streak, Nevada took town top contenders like Wyoming. The Wolf Pack finished up the season with 19 wins, the most since 2002. The Pack also went 10-8 in conference play, their first winning record since 2007. Nevada also had five seniors graduate, and three of them get into the all-time record books at Nevada.
“There really was so much chemistry between all of us during that season. It made me anxious for the next season to start.”
Being down by five star players, Nelson realized it was time to start recruiting for the 2017 season. With his roster open for new players, Nelson has recruited a brand new team, and they’re young. With more than half the team being lower-classmen, and having their star players coming back and ready to step up, Nelson believes this year Nevada is going to be the team to beat.
“We’ve found new stars, and we have girls who are coming back to leave their mark. Its truly going to be exciting to watch this young squad play with each other. There is so much chemistry, I really believe this is going to be an exciting year.”
With a new team on the roster, Nelson plans to lead his team to take the Mountain West Conference this year, as well as take down top defenders such as Boise State and Colorado State University, one of the best volleyball teams on the West Coast. He also plans to bring his team to a shot at the NCAA Tournament, where he believes Nevada will begin to take its ranks back as one of the best teams in the nation. Nevada will have its first pregame matches in early August in a San Francisco Tournament, and then will host its first home game in early September, as dates have yet to be released. Yet, before the games start, before the practices and training begins, Nelson always knows to thank the people who support him.
“We truly wouldn’t be here without our fans. I know what it’s like to watch a team grow during its growing pains, and I know it sometimes can’t be pretty,” Nelson said. “But we are extremely motivated this year, and I can’t wait to show you what we have in store. So thank you, to our fans.”
Nelson comes back into his office and sets his whistle and clipboard back on the corner section of his chestnut table. He leans back in his black office chair and puts his hands on his head. He sighs, then leans forward to take a drink of the diet soda still left on the table. He knows today was progress, but there is a lot more to be made. He checks his watch and sees that it’s way past when he promised he would be home. He looks up and stares at the pictures of his players on his table. A warm smile spreads across his face, as a feeling of content rises inside him. He grabs his folders, clicks the light off in his office and locks the door. Tomorrow the day will be the same, but coach Nelson will always change, for the better.