Jeff Nelson is not just another coach to seniors Cassie House and Julia Warren.
New Mexico’s head coach has had the two under his wing from a young age, even when Nelson was just getting acclimated to the community, and the chile, himself.
Nelson has played a major role in the livse of UNM’s pair of dominating outside hitters, and he has done so through their teenage years and into adulthood.
In the early stages of their high school tenures, Nelson knew he had to recruit the two local high school standouts, starting with Warren in her freshman year and followed by House as a sophomore.
However, the comradery between the two players was a process and, according to Nelson, not always without growing pains.
“When I had them in high school, they had a little bit of a rivalry with each other. I think some of that carried on here, but then they were teammates,” Nelson said. “Their strengths are really different; Cassie’s is blocking, attacking and she has a wicked serve... Julia is kind of a baller. She kind of does everything well, so they’re different. The rivalry kind of gave way to being teammates.”
Any maturation process is filled with kinks and bumps along the way, and Warren said she had to learn through trial to handle Nelson’s way of leading.
“I definitely had to learn how to take the tone out of things. When you’re playing, it’s so in the moment and everyone is so caught up with what’s happening and things can come out in a very intense way,” Warren said. “I think growing up to now being a senior, I take what he says and I move on with what he said, instead of taking it personally with the tone.”
House agreed she too was forced to quickly adjust to Nelson’s strong presence, as well as learn how to listen and continue her growth as a player and a person.
“Sometimes when he would give me directions or different coaching, I would take it very personally,” House said. “But as I’ve matured, even in recent years, it’s become more of me being able to understand the meaning behind the message.”
For Nelson, he has no regrets on how he treated the two and the effect he’s had on their ability to play the game to this day.
“I think I would have been doing them a disservice to not have been hard on them and not to have expected a lot from them, because they are such good athletes and they are capable of doing so much. And they’ve had great careers,” he said.
Distinct, but complementary, personalities
House and Warren show their passion and love for the game each time the two lace up their shoes and take their stances in Johnson Center.
Despite growing up alongside one another, the two have very different styles of play, and, according to Nelson, their personalities are just as distinct.
House has the playmaker ability, with her 6-foot-2-inch frame and athleticism, to soar high above defensive hands at the net. Her hard-hitting, “beat them at the net” attitude has awarded her the luxury of being one of the most athletic individuals at any moment on the court.
Warren, on the other hand, has proven time and time again that she has the ability to handle even the most stressful situations with poise and reliability. Nelson described the trait as being a “baller.” She is able to provide consistency day in and day out through her ability to dig balls off the hardwood, be a great passer and, when need be, rise above the net to put some balls away.
It isn’t just the style of play that Nelson has to account for when coaching the pair of pin hitters in their final year of eligibility. He has also mastered the art of planning a strategy that will get the most productivity out of the two.
“The way we handle each of them is different, the way I handle each of them is different,” Nelson said. “They’re really different souls but they’ve matured, and I do think that they’ve handled that better.”
As any good coach knows, a single method simply won’t work when coaching a group of individual players. While volleyball is a team sport, the unique personalities that come along with it also need to be accounted for.
The two are also able to lean on Nelson off the court.
Warren said the head coach has been a positive influence on her and continues to serve a unique role in her life that no one else can emulate.
“I’ve been around Jeff for a long, long time and he knows a lot of things about me that a lot of people don’t know,” Warren said. “I can go to him about certain issues that I can’t go to my parents, or my boyfriend, with.”
While House did not identify Nelson as a holder of secrets, she did say that he has been able to continue to grow through being a student of the game.
She said her long-time coach has bestowed upon her his seemingly infinite amount of knowledge about the game that has molded House into the player she is today.
The two both verbally committed to UNM as sophomores and received coaching from Nelson until late in their junior years, when Nelson said he knew that they would be joining his team.
Both House and Warren said the appeal of playing at home in front of friends and family was a major lure to getting them to stay, but the way Nelson has embraced the state of New Mexico has also been something they could jump on board with.
Their notions about Nelson were correct.
In 10 years, UNM’s head coach has drawn larger crowds, generated excitement in the community about the sport, and has launched the beach volleyball program that will forever be associated with his name.
“I think it’s just a great community. My kids went to junior high, elementary, and high school here. So it’s their home. It’s a great sports community, it’s a great volleyball community,” Nelson said. “That’s the thing I like the most — and I knew that coming in — was that it was a great volleyball community and we had to get back to that, because we had gotten away from that.”
Nelson said he has an ambition to continue the growth of the community he has been a part of for a decade. Nearly half of his roster consists of players with New Mexico roots, and the head coach said he hopes that local talent continues to pour through the program.
House and Warren are both living proof that the volleyball community has thrived with the arrival of Nelson. While both are entering their final season under the head coach, they both said their relationships will not end after the final match.
Liam Cary-Eaves is the sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers volleyball, women’s basketball and baseball. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Liam_CE.