Confident Nelson Riding A Sophomore Spike
Nov. 15, 2012
SEATTLE - One of Coach McLaughlin's many adages is that players make their most improvement between year one and year two. Sophomore Kaleigh Nelson has been living, spiking proof of that saying this fall for the sixth-ranked Huskies, who host No. 4 Oregon and Oregon State this Friday and Saturday.
If college volleyball was a swimming pool, Nelson would have dipped her toe in last year as a freshman, before doing a twisting, flipping headfirst dive this year, and making quite a splash.
The native of Salem, Oregon appeared in just 16 total sets in 2011, with 13 kills and a .102 attack percentage in spot duty. Looking back, Nelson says, "Freshman year I think I was a little overwhelmed and I think I needed to grow up a little bit. The mental game of college volleyball is so much different than high school."
More prepared mentally and physically after a spring and summer of conditioning, Nelson said her mindset was just about helping this team be successful by improving her own game.
Her role was not clearly defined right away. In Washington's season-opening tournament, Nelson played just one set in each of the first two matches. It wasn't until the second week of the season, when the Huskies traveled to Houston to play Purdue, LSU, and Rice, that Nelson announced herself as a force to be reckoned with. She had six kills and hit .462 in the sweep of then-No. 7 Purdue, and then hit a ridiculous .714 with 11 kills against Rice, swooping in from the right side to hammer nearly every set for a kill.
"I think when we went down to Texas, I started feeling really good about being able to do my job and do the things that I needed to do for my team," she says.
Nelson's emergence was a big factor in McLaughlin's decision to go with the 6-2 rotation this year. "We had two right side hitters who were both really developing that we needed to get on the floor," says McLaughlin, "Kaleigh and Ky (Muñoz) both." Going with four outside hitters as opposed to three allowed Nelson to get in the mix, and since that Texas trip she has been firmly entrenched as one of Washington's go-to hitters.
After the 13 kills she recorded as a freshman, Nelson is up to 210 this year and counting. She has had four single matches with more than 13 kills, including a career-best 16 against Washington State back on Sept. 18, and has had 10 matches in a row with at least eight kills heading into this weekend's matches.
With an average of 2.41 kills per set and a .312 attack percentage, Nelson is suddenly a contender for All-Pac-12 honors as just a sophomore. Her kills total ranks second on the Huskies behind fellow sophomore Krista Vansant, with Vansant notching the majority of her 380 kills on the left side of the net and Nelson primarily on the right. It sets up a combo that should only get better with time.
Adjusting to the right side, with the ball moving left to right and different angles to master has been mostly smooth, Nelson says. "I had never played over there very much, but we structure practice so that we get a lot of reps on both the left and the right side," she says. "It feels comfortable."
"The only difference is that the block is a little to my left instead of to my right, but you are still trying to go up and hit your shot, still thinking the same thoughts as you are on the left side. Any hitter will go up see the block and hit where they are not."
Changing her approach to the game 'has taught me to keep a level head the whole time,' says Nelson.
Few things provide the same motivation as first contributing to a winner, and Coach McLaughlin says that Nelson has got a taste of success and now everything takes on greater importance. "She's maturing, she's more mindful in everything she's doing. I just want to see her continue to get better, because I think she's figuring out what it really takes."
After being a pleasant early surprise, Nelson now certainly is getting more attention from opponents when they scout the Huskies. Making adjustments, even within the course of one set, is a new challenge for the developing player.
"I have noticed that they will figure out what my favorite shot is and put a block right there, so I will have to pick different shots as the game goes on," Nelson says. "You can't hit the same shot over and over again."
Nelson has also stepped up in the clutch on a number of occasions this season, hammering down kills that dug the Huskies out of set points down or put away a set in a tense moment. Treating every point the same, Nelson says, helps her keep loose in the big moments.
"Jim always tells us that every point has a life of its own and," she says. "I don't try to look at the score so I don't get in my own head. I want every point the same."
"The biggest gains I've noticed," says Nelson on the spike in her play, "is I wasn't as nervous anymore; I could just play the game. When you stop noticing everyone on the sideline and you start noticing the twelve people on the court right then and there, it's easier to just play."