Rebuilding an athletic program is never easy. Doing so in only one season approaches remarkable.
When Joe Nelson took the reigns of the West Hall volleyball program at the beginning of the 2009, he was taking control of a team that had missed the playoffs in 2008 for the first time since 2004.
In his first year, the Lady Spartans missed the playoffs again after posting a 19-20 record, but a 6-5 record in Region 7-AAA hinted at the improvements taking place.
Those hints became reality this season as West Hall went 27-17 and earned a spot in the state playoffs, where they won their initial match up with Troup Country before being eliminated in the second round.
For the success that he brought back to West Hall, Nelson has been named The Times 2010 Volleyball Coach of the Year.
The coach, who turned 59 on Friday, has been coaching volleyball for 17 years and is glad to see his Lady Spartans make such a quick turnaround.
“When I took the program over I sat the seniors down and asked ‘what do you want to get out of this,’” Nelson said.
“They said they wanted to get their pride back.”
West Hall accomplished that before the state playoffs even began by earning the No. 2 seed from Region 8-AAA after placing second in the region tournament.
“I never set the goal of placing in certain place in region or winning so many games,” Nelson said. “I just kept telling them one match at a time. That’s how I do it, just one match at a time. The only goal that the kids were focused on was to improve every day and to work with each other and help each other improve.
“They accomplished that goal, and placing second in the region and making state was the result.”
The Lady Spartans’ first-round win over Troup County was the 350th win of Nelson’s career.
This deep into his career, Nelson isn’t ready to walk away quite yet.
“I’m going to go at least a couple of more years until I see the crew that I started with through their careers,” Nelson said.
“Then we will see where we are at.”
Not only does Nelson want to see what the next few years holds for West Hall volleyball, he also wants to ensure that he has built a program from the ground up.
“We have a junior ball club now and then our J.V. team was 19-8 and that was one of the best seasons they’ve had in a while,” Nelson said. “We are focused on helping players improve at every level so that when they arrive at varsity, they are ready to take the next step.
“All of our older players are committed to helping the younger, so it really builds a team mentality and the identity that we want to constantly have success.”
Nelson said that a big part of West Hall’s improvement over the past two seasons has been graduating senior Julie Walsh.
“Julie is one of those players who was good in all phases of the game,” Nelson said. “She was a very calming effect on the rest of the team. She’s very mature.”
While Nelson was full of compliments for the captain of the Lady Spartans, Walsh had nothing but good things to say about her time playing for the coach.
“He’s just a great coach,” Walsh said. “He encourages us to work hard every practice because he works hard every practice.
“He’s just a great person all the way around.”
As for making it to the state playoffs for the first time in her high school career, the senior said that she was simply “really happy about it.”
“It’s the first time that we’ve went and, while I thought we were good enough to go to the playoffs, it was still more unexpected than expected,” Walsh said. “It’s a nice way to end my high school career.”
While losing such a smart player is never a bonus for a coach, Nelson is optimistic about next season.
“I think we’re going to be even better next year,” Nelson said. “Even losing three seniors, I probably won’t have but two spots still open for next year’s squad, that’s how young we really were this season.
“I think we’re going to be competitive for a long time.”