When West Hall High’s volleyball coach Joe Nelson heard that he was this year’s Times All-Area Coach of the Year, he responded enthusiastically and said, “Ha! No way. Can I tell my wife?”
That’s about what you would expect from the modest and unassuming Nelson, who inherited a disheartened Spartan team earlier this year.
West Hall went 17-26 with only three wins in Region 7-AAA in 2008.
“They were lacking a lot of self confidence,” Nelson said of his squad. “Before the season started I sat the seniors down and asked them what they wanted most out of this season and they told me, ‘Coach we want our pride back.’”
Nelson responded by leading the Spartans to a 19-20 overall record, 6-5 in the region, and a near berth in the Class AAA state playoffs.
“We were just a few points shy of the state playoffs,” Nelson said.
West Hall was defeated by Flowery Branch (25-23, 23-25, 25-23) on Oct. 10 to end its season.
“It was a heartbreaking loss,” said Spartans senior Kristen Holmes. “But we ended the season on a proud note.”
A local physical education teacher for 12 years, Nelson coached volleyball for five years at North Hall High, but stopped coaching in 2004 and moved to West Hall Middle.
Having not coached for so long, Nelson’s season with the Spartans almost didn’t happen.
“(West Hall High’s athletic director) Greg Williams approached me in January and asked me to take the team,” Nelson said. “I took a couple of weeks to consider it. When you’re coaching it takes up so much of your time and I liked my freedom.”
Nelson ultimately took the reins, but the journey to return the Spartans’ verve wasn’t an easy one.
“At first the girls couldn’t do a three pass rotation,” Nelson said. “In July, we went to Harrison High School to play in some preseason games. In between matches, I took the team down to the tennis courts to teach them.”
“We knew he was very concerned after our poor performance at our first tournament over the summer,” Holmes said of Nelson. “Things weren’t looking so bright. We had just lost five seniors and had come off of a losing season.”
The Spartans’ year continued with a rocky start that saw them win only nine of their first 25 games.
Yet West Hall showed a lot of initiative and turned its season around with 10 wins in its next 13 games to even its record at 19-19 before the loss to the Falcons.
“Early in the season, we lost a lot of games by two or three points, but the kids never got negative.” Nelson said. “They didn’t get negative about the season, they weren’t negative about me and we peaked right when we needed to.”
For the Spartans, they attribute much of this season’s success to Nelson’s leadership and determination.
“Coach Nelson knew what our goals were and he wouldn’t stop working hard until we achieved them,” Holmes said. “He has completely turned around our team and has given West Hall a good foundation to build on.”