PANTHER OF THE WEEK: Nelson is blue-collar volleyballer

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By Scott Akanewich

Good thing Ashley Nelson isn’t a golfer.

During her freshman year at Liberty Hill, she was riding shotgun in a golf cart on the way to a community pool when disaster struck.

“All of a sudden, the brakes stopped working,” said Nelson. “A few seconds later, the cart flipped over.”

Nelson survived, but the big toe on her left foot nearly didn’t.

“It practically got torn completely off,” she said. “The doctor said I would never play volleyball again.”

Shows what doctors know.

“I think the whole thing taught me how important tenacity and grit are,” said Nelson, who recovered completely from the episode, but not before three different surgeries and endless rehabilitation over the course of a six-month period. “It was tough sitting on the sidelines watching my teammates play, but I think it increased my love for the sport.”

Volleyball, that is.

However, Nelson has also played basketball and run track all four years of her Purple-and-Gold existence, which provides her with a well-rounded athletic experience.

“With the different sports comes different environments and different people,” she said. “It’s all about the relationships I have in all of them.”

According to Liberty Hill head volleyball Coach Gretchen Peterson, Nelson’s voraciousness for different sports is one of the biggest things that makes her special.

“Ashley’s one of those kids who understands and likes representing Liberty Hill however she can,” said Peterson. “I think it’s awesome she soaks up and enjoys every bit of high school – she’s living it to the fullest and I wish we had more kids like her. So many kids are just looking to hurry up and finish high school.”

Peterson said Nelson could be even better if she focused on volleyball alone, but understands doing other things is part of what makes her tick as an athlete – and student.

“She’s definitely not afraid of hard work,” she said. “Ashley’s really smart in all of her classes.”

Back on the court, Nelson was once a setter and a middle blocker, but was quickly converted to an outside hitter once she arrived in Pantherville, although her value to the team goes beyond kills, said Peterson.

“She was part of our varsity as a freshman because we were thin that year and needed to pull players from lower levels to run our practice drills and we involved Ashley because she could do whatever we needed her to,” she said. “She’s been a really consistent force for us.”

Nelson proved to Peterson early on she was ready for the varsity level.

“She’s always played a little older and been ahead of the curve especially with her ball control,” said Peterson. “We knew she was ready to take on more responsibility and I think that also helped her develop as a player.”

However, once she reached varsity, it was more difficult to prove she belonged and deserved to stay, said Nelson.

“Once you make varsity, you know you have to continue to grow and get better,” she said. “Being an all-around player is pretty hard.”

Speaking of which, Nelson is a six-rotation player, which means she rarely subs out and plays all over the court, which is a valuable asset to have as a coach, said Peterson.

“Ashley’s played every position for us but libero and setter,” she said. “I’m never worried about where she plays.”

In addition to her versatility, Peterson also appreciates the fact Nelson goes about her business on the court without complaint.

“Her primary role as a sophomore was to come off the bench as a defensive specialist and back-row player,” she said. “Now, we might need to switch her from one side of the front line to the other, but it’s never an issue for her.”

Nelson’s ability to lead her teammates is another on-court intangible strength, said Peterson.

“It’s like I have an assistant coach on the floor,” she said. “She’s not super-vocal, but in the circle, she’s always talking to players – me barking at them only goes so far, so sometimes it needs to come from a peer.”

At times, Nelson is the only senior on the court, as there are only three on the Lady Panthers’ roster, so her ability to calm a situation comes in handy, said Peterson.

“Having her on the court makes all the difference when she’s out there with five young kids,” she said. “We’ve been together now four years and sometimes I give her a hard time, but I trust her.”

Peterson said the reason for that is the fact Nelson is humble in how she carries herself.

“Ashley’s definitely not one of those drama queens or a hey-look-at-me kid,” she said. “She’s no-nonsense and just loves to play and compete.”

Which means she many times goes unnoticed, said Peterson.

“She’s blue-collar in everything she does,” she said. “I think a lot of people underestimate her, but she’s always one of our leaders on the stat sheet every match. She does a great job, knows how to do the right thing and simply gets results.”

As for her injury, Peterson hearkened back to Nelson’s older sister Haley, who also played for her.

“One time, we were arriving at a tournament and Haley cut her foot open on a door stop on the way into a gym and needed stitches,” she said. “So, when that happened to Ashley, I said to myself ‘What is it with the Nelson family and feet?’ After that, we teased her about it when it got better.”

So, has Nelson found herself in a golf cart again since that fateful day as a freshman?

“No,” she said. “I think only ever again if I’m driving.”

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