Nelson naturally catches on for Gophers

Kent Erdahl

For many athletes, a single play can change a season entirely.

But Minnesota volleyball sophomore Meredith Nelson’s season changed with a single word.

Nelson played inconsistently through the beginning of the season, and after a particularly tough weekend against Northwestern and Wisconsin three weeks ago, coach Mike Hebert pulled her aside and told her to play “naturally.”

Nelson immediately latched onto the word. She used a “natural” approach to key a statistical turnaround that has resembled something closer to the supernatural.

In the last four matches, Nelson has maintained a .406 hitting percentage, converting 58 of 123 attempts for kills while recording only eight errors.

Those numbers came during a critical stretch for the No. 5 Gophers (24-4, 13-3 Big Ten), in which the team went 3-1 in matches against No. 4 Penn State, No. 7 Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State.

But Hebert said he still doesn’t quite know why the “natural” assessment worked so well.

“I’ve used dozens and dozens of similar words in the past, none of which mattered,” Hebert said. “That one just seemed to click for her, and I can’t really explain it.”

Nelson said the answer is simple. She said that she was thinking too much because she felt behind the learning curve.

As an athlete at St. Croix, Wis., Nelson said, she struggled with basketball until she grew comfortable with her skills in high school.

But she said that the comfort level didn’t come with volleyball because she got a late start. She didn’t begin playing on club teams until her junior year of high school, and then she was thrust into Minnesota’s starting lineup as a freshman.

“I felt like I needed to improve so rapidly in order to get up to speed with everyone else on the court,” Nelson said. “I’m known as the team nerd just because I have that personality of trying to think about and analyze everything.”

Though her thinking helped her in the classroom, Nelson said, it didn’t allow her to relax on the floor.

Hebert said that Nelson lost trust in her ability because she wanted to find a reason for everything she did wrong.

To point out her often absurd quest for perfection, Hebert said, he tried many techniques, including his favorite – humor.

“There was a time there where I could get her on just about anything,” Hebert said. “I’d say something like, ‘Your right eye wasn’t quite as focused as your left on that play.’ And she’d say, ‘It wasn’t? How can I train it to get better?’ “

Libero Paula Gentil said that she’s had to help keep Nelson’s mind from wandering during a match in the past, but Nelson’s improvement shows just how much she has grown as a player.

“She was a killing machine these past two weekends,” Gentil said. “Last year, we couldn’t even set our middles very much. This year we can, and it’s just amazing.”

Nelson’s teammates haven’t just noticed a difference on a statistical level – her demeanor on the court has been nearly as striking.

Hebert suggested using teammates, such as fellow middle blocker Jessica Byrnes and setter Kelly Bowman, as examples of how to have fun and remain positive on the court.

But Nelson said her play has taken care of the fun part – even if she can’t quite analyze why that is.

“It’s a lot easier to have fun when you’re playing well,” Nelson said. “I don’t know if I’m just lucky or picking the right shots or what. But I’ve never been at this point, because it really hasn’t happened before in my volleyball career.”