Beginning in the Middle

by Graham Hays

An All-American now blazing trails in pro volleyball, Commodores assistant coach Azhani Tealer embodies shattering your ceiling

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Not long after coach Anders Nelson left Kentucky to build Vanderbilt’s volleyball program from the ground up, he messaged Wildcats All-American Azhani Tealer. Amid general catching up and back and forth banter, he added that he looked forward to one day coaching alongside her in Nashville. He told her she could help bring the best of the best to Vanderbilt. She thought he was joking, just “Ders,” as everyone knows him, being goofy. He knew better.

Once Tealer completed her collegiate career, and when Nelson wasn’t otherwise busy recruiting the student-athletes who will bring volleyball back to Vanderbilt after a 45-year hiatus, he hit the recruiting trail one more time. In this case, for the final member of his coaching staff.

It was a job interview in reverse: Tealer had all the questions. Why her, she wanted to know. Out of all the people falling over themselves to work for an up-and-coming head coach at an SEC school committed to building a winner, why pick someone who was also embarking on a professional volleyball career and had barely thought about coaching?

It wasn’t complicated, Nelson said: Tealer could learn to coach. No one else could learn to be Tealer.

In truth, she had aced the interview long before Nelson took the job—before Vanderbilt even announced the program. She’d aced it when she was a first-year student sitting opposite Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner and Nelson in the standard end-of-season exit interview, reviewing the season and discussing offseason priorities. Skinner slid Tealer a list of positions, and he asked her to rank how well she could play each position. Middle blocker was not high on her list. It might as well have been linebacker or shortstop. Except that’s the position the coaches returned to as the discussion continued.

How would the 5-foot-10 Tealer feel about playing middle, traditionally the home of giants and the spot recently vacated by 6-foot-4 All-American Kaz Brown? She didn’t hesitate.

“That’s ‘Z’ a nutshell,” Nelson said. “She was like, ‘If it gets me on the court, and I can help us win, I’m in.’”

Even if she then wondered what she had just gotten herself into.

Vanderbilt’s newest assistant coach doesn’t need to tell incoming student-athletes what they can achieve if they’re willing to shatter their ceilings, as the program mantra puts it. Tealer is what’s possible. When she told her coaches she would reinvent herself, she wasn’t sure that she could—and she didn’t really know if she wanted to. She did know it wouldn’t be easy. But she also knew there was a reason Nelson wanted her to try. He believed she could help a team that went on to win a national championship less than a year later. And he wanted to give her the tools to always do whatever she dares imagine.

“I did mean that so sincerely,” Tealer recalled of her answer in that exit interview. “And then I went home, and I was like, ‘Oh God, if this doesn’t work, that kind of pushes me out of the picture.’ I didn’t necessarily want to have to learn a new position—I wanted to get better at the one I knew. And the first, like, six months sucked. Like anything, you have to get worse before it gets better. It’s so much faster. And I’m a freshman, so the game’s already getting faster, and then you triple it with playing a new position, learning a new side of the game.

“It was really hard. I had to really buy into doing it and getting good at it. But I’m really excited and lucky that I did.”

Foundation of Trust

Tealer wasn’t a diamond in the rough coming out of high school in Texas. She was a highly ranked recruit with a list of athletic accoladed and stellar academic credentials. But she was also undersized for a pin hitter, which encompasses the opposite and outside positions, by the standards of the top tier of programs in Division I.

One of Tealer’s earliest recollections of anything to do with her alma mater was the sight of the 6-foot-9 Nelson, usually the tallest person in any room, towering over her court at a youth event. Yet few did more than this giant to put her mind at ease about her height. It remains part of his core philosophy at Vanderbilt. He’s willing to trade an inch or two that looks good on a roster for volleyball instincts, work ethic and athleticism like Tealer’s remarkable 10-foot-6 approach jump—the traits that make a team successful on the court.

When Kentucky first reached out to her, Tealer knew more about the school’s basketball reputation than its volleyball program—at the time still building to a championship level. It was the people who made the school her first choice, people who she felt saw everything she could be instead of whatever boxes she didn’t check on the recruiting profile.

“They poured a lot of confidence into me,” Tealer said. “Especially when I got to school, Ders made me feel like I was capable of doing anything. That’s one of the things I really appreciate about him. But there were definitely some schools that did not feel that way.”

Moving to Middle

Her initial apprehension about changing positions notwithstanding, her trust in the people across the desk helped her take on the challenge with an open mind. And she trusted no one more than Nelson. Middle blockers are his bread and butter. It’s the position he played as a student-athlete at Ball State and the position he helped Brown play at an All-American level at Kentucky. And though it’s a position where being 6-foot-9 doesn’t hurt your chances, Nelson is adamant that it’s a position where height isn’t everything.

“Lateral quickness is one of the biggest traits a middle can have,” Nelson said. “You can either be big and reach for blocks or you can be fast and get there with your feet. That was one area where we thought Azhani would be awesome. Motor is another big thing for middles, and her ability to just work, work, work, work throughout a rally was a big thing. Then there’s also a team-first mentality. People joke that middles do a lot of work and don’t get a lot of love. And she’s really willing to do what’s best for the team.”

It was no small move. For an audience well versed in baseball after years of supporting the VandyBoys, Nelson compared it to something along the lines of a corner infielder moving to shortstop. It’s the same general part of the field or court—the middle occupies the space near the net and between the outside hitter and opposite. But the skills, responsibilities and even mindset are entirely different.

Adding to the challenge, Tealer and Nelson had only a matter of weeks to work on the new role before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic sent everyone home. Tealer still has video of herself from early in the pandemic, alone in a park, practicing the mechanics of blocking over and over on a deserted court. While it wasn’t the ideal way to learn, they navigated the obstacles well enough that she was ready to make the move when the Wildcats took the court for a limited SEC-only schedule that fall. Perhaps most important to the experiment’s ultimate success, Nelson never tried to mold Tealer into a typical middle. Instead, he and Skinner tried to mold the team’s offense around what she did well.

“Anders is such a savant about volleyball, and his foundational way of teaching made it really easy for me to figure out the basics,” Tealer said. “At the same time, I knew even then that Anders believed in me and trusted me to be super creative and figure out ways to make the position mine. He didn’t coach me the same way as the rest of the middles—he couldn’t—and I appreciated that. But he also never let me off the hook. He never took it easy and always held me to the highest standard.”

Tealer’s willingness to embrace the challenge and the innovative offense built around her skills made the process easier. They didn’t make it easy.  Tealer recalled a trip to Florida for back-to-back matches in March (as a result of the pandemic, SEC teams played a split fall-spring schedule in 2020–21). Tealer couldn’t buy a block. Over and over, she did what she had learned in the preceding months. Over and over, it didn’t work. By that time in the season, everyone in the locker room knew they had a special team. But after losing the first match against the Gators, she feared she was holding them back. Teammate after teammate encouraged her after that match. They lifted her up. So she returned the favor.

Kentucky won the next match in straight sets. In fact, it wouldn’t drop another set until the Final Four. In Omaha, the Wildcats defeated Washington in the semifinals and Texas in the national championship match to win the first title for an SEC school. Afterward, the teammate whose place in the starting lineup Tealer ostensibly took sought her out. She wanted to tell her they wouldn’t have won the title if not for Tealer doing what she did.

An All-SEC selection and All-American in the title season, Tealer went on to earn All-SEC honors in each of the next three seasons and All-American honors again in 2022.

“One of the coolest parts of that title season was watching how excited her teammates got for her as she developed into the role,” Nelson said. “They all knew what a crazy athlete she was and how good she was. So for them, it was fun—and inspiring—to see her do something so different but be so good at it.”

At Kentucky, Tealer was a two-time AVCA All-America second-team selection, three-time AVCA all-region honoree and was named  All-SEC on four occasions (photo courtesy Kentucky Athletics).

Blazing a Trail to Vanderbilt

Assistant coaches Russell Corbelli and Lauren Plum were the first pieces of the puzzle for Nelson, each hired within weeks of his arrival at the beginning of 2023. But at almost the same time, the NCAA Division I council approved the creation of a third full-time assistant coaching position in volleyball and other sports. With the first student-athletes arriving ahead of the 2024–25 academic year, and the first match a year later, Nelson didn’t have to rush a hire. And he knew who he wanted—someone who might not have Corbelli or Plum’s coaching experience but shared their ability to connect with everyone they encountered.

“I’ve never been around an athlete who connected with everyone in the department like she did,” Nelson said of Tealer. “She knew the people in our ticketing office, our facilities crew, our custodial staff, the business office. She didn’t have to do that. She just has a really natural gift of people wanting to be around her.”

There was one hurdle. She wasn’t done playing. Days after the conclusion of the most recent college season, Tealer was selected by the Orlando Valkyries in the Pro Volleyball Federation’s inaugural draft. Until recently, with the arrival of domestic leagues like Athletes Unlimited and the Pro Volleyball Federation, playing professional volleyball meant going overseas or at least beyond the 50 states. It’s the path Plum followed for six years, from France to Germany to Puerto Rico. Tealer wanted to see how much more she could grow as an athlete, but she wasn’t keen on packing up her life and moving abroad.

Earning her place against women sometimes a decade older and more experienced wasn’t easy. After progressing from the practice squad to the full roster, she had to move back to her old position after four years as a middle—going through the same adjustment process in reverse. But playing in the league, whose season runs from late January through the middle of May, is an opportunity to build something lasting.

“Even a few years ago, I definitely would not have been able to appreciate this opportunity for what it is,” Tealer said. “Our job is to come in and play volleyball. There are people out there with really hard jobs that feel actual pressure. This is so much fun and such a blessing. We have to do hard things sometimes and work hard, but this is the best job in the world.”

It’s the same opportunity that awaits at Vanderbilt: the opportunity to build something new that will serve young women for generations to come. She’s excited to get to work. Among other duties, she’ll work closely with the middles, including incoming first-year student-athletes Maddy Bowser and Rachel Ogunleye. And as with Shea Ralph, who works around director of player development Katie Lou Samuelson’s WNBA commitments, Nelson told her the pro career isn’t an issue. Not this season, not for as long as she wishes to play.

“I will tell her story for the rest of my coaching career,” Nelson said, “because it is so good and so impactful for athletes who may be going through a similar situation in their lives.”

As the first Vanderbilt volleyball student-athletes in nearly five decades arrive on campus this summer and begin to write their own stories, Nelson won’t have to say anything. They will be able to see for themselves what is possible when you shatter your ceilings.



Dare to Be First

The inside story of Vanderbilt volleyball’s first recruiting class

Coming Full Circle

Twelve years after representing her country on the volleyball court, Vanderbilt’s Lauren Plum blazed a new trail as a Team USA assistant coach in the FIVB U21 World Championship

Shatter Your Ceilings

Anders Nelson’s lifelong volleyball journey fuels the vision for Vanderbilt’s newest program.