Photo by Jeff Yoder
Your Prep Sports
SOLON – As an eighth grader Rachael Nelson watched as Solon won the Class 3A state title in 2014 couldn’t help picturing herself celebrating on the floor at the US Cellular Center somebody.
It’s easy to see why Nelson figured she would get her shot at a state tournament.
Solon was coming off a fourth consecutive 30-win season that ended with the Spartans securing their first state title in a fourth consecutive trip to the state tournament.
Four years later Nelson still remembers watching that state tournament celebration but the memory has been faded a bit by three years of postseason heartache.
“Ever since eighth grade when they won the state championship I thought we would be another team coming through and we’ve always been cut short,” Nelson said. “It hurt my heart a little bit every year.”
A starter since the first match of her freshman season Nelson has seen it all during her prep volleyball career.
The senior setter has gone through a coaching change, a couple of roster make overs and seen her role redefined on a yearly basis.
What Nelson hasn’t seen is the view from the courts at the US Cellular Center in a state tournament match but she still has a chance to change that.
Solon (22-7) snapped a three-game regional losing streak with a sweep of Vinton-Shellsburg in a its regional opener last week to move two games away from the state tournament.
The next and perhaps biggest hurdles comes on Tuesday when Solon hosts WAMAC rival and ninth-ranked Mount Vernon (25-15) at 7 p.m. in the Class 3A Region 5 semifinals.
“It sounds kind of cliched but it would mean the world,” Nelson said of reaching the state tournament. “Now that it’s my final year if I could push the team to get back there it would mean so much.”
Nelson stepped into the starting setter position as a freshman in 2015 and watched as injuries to key players contributed to a disappointing 10-win season.
Sarah Ferin took over the program in 2016 and quickly saw Nelson was the lifeblood of the team.
“You can see, everything ebbs and flows with her,” Ferin explained. “If she is upset then we are upset if she is happy then we are happy.”
Nelson has been a difference maker since she stepped onto the court.
She has led the Spartans in assists each of the last four years and has more than 1,600 in her career.
Following an eight-win season in 2015 Ferin crafted a plan to make the 5-foot-7 even more of an integral part of the Spartans’ success.
Nelson began getting hitting opportunities in Ferin’s 6-2 attack and showed her ability to affect the game all over the court in a breakthrough junior season.
“Last year she kind of broke out as a hitter and that helped,” Ferin said. “She is good in the back row, she can set, she can serve, she is just so good everywhere.”
Nelson had career-highs in kills, assists, digs and blocks last season while helping Solon to a 15-21 record, the best during her career.
This fall Nelson has taken her game and her team to new heights.
Solon started the season 13-5 and was ranked as high as third in the Class 3A rankings.
“It has definitely been a heck of a ride,” Nelson said. “I’ve never had so much fun in a season it’s honestly been great having my classmates around me playing the same game that we love. It’s been pretty cool.”
Nelson ranks third on the team with 141 kills this season while leading the Spartans with 412 assists.
She has a career-high 37 ace serves to go with 178 digs and 31 blocks.
Nelson relishes the idea of being a player that can do it all.
“I love blocking, I love blocking,” Nelson said. “Hitting is pretty fun when I have a good day but I’ve always loved setting.”
What Nelson has really embraced is her role as a leader.
While watching film from last season Nelson realized the same thing her coach had seen years earlier, the team takes on her attitude.
“I realized that I am more of a leader on the team than I thought and people look up to me a lot so when I get myself down it affects everybody and I can tell that now,” Nelson said. “Now that I have watched film on that I know that I have to keep my head up for the rest of the team to play well.”
As a four-year varsity starter Nelson knows nearly every tendency of every opponent.
Ferin approaches Nelson first as they discuss preparation for a specific opponent.
“Her maturity level has gone up, she has brought everything up, she is just more aware of everything,” Ferin said. “If I say going into a match who are the people that we are going to look for on the other team she instantly knows.”
Nelson has one final chance for that trip to the state tournament.
After losing in the regional quarterfinal each of her first season Nelson is in uncharted territory this season but likes where her team is at, just two games away from the state tournament.
“We are a pretty tight-knit team this year,” Nelson said. “We decided that we weren’t going to let anything happen to change that and we were going to play together as one team and we’ve really focused on that this year.”