Shatter Your Ceilings

by Graham Hays

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

Two decades ago, some of volleyball’s most accomplished coaches trekked to St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, a small town a stone’s throw from the Minnesota border, to recruit one the nation’s best high school athletes. They sat in Meredith Nelson’s living room and made their cases, bringing big-time volleyball to the smallest of settings.

Though they came to recruit one member of the family, they inspired another. Younger brother Anders Nelson hung on their every word. He answered the phone when they called and assured them that, absolutely, his sister would love to talk—even as she waved him off, weary of the attention. He loved every minute of it, picking the brains of people who mentored national volleyball champions, All-Americans and Olympians. He wanted his chance at that world.

It didn’t matter that Nelson would travel a more prosaic path than his sister, who ultimately stayed close to home as an All-American at the University of Minnesota. He also attended Minnesota, becoming a student-manager for the Gophers, but he eventually transferred to Ball State to play Division I men’s volleyball. Later on, he coached high schoolers in Muncie, Indiana, then helped the University of Kentucky win the SEC’s first national championship. The twists and turns never bothered him. He never doubted his destination.

At Vanderbilt, he has arrived.

The first head coach of a new era, Nelson is relaunching a program that had been dormant since before he was born. But he’s been preparing for such a build for almost as long. Ever since his introduction to volleyball, he’d felt called to coach. He learned to help athletes reach their goals and climb still higher. And while it may be less than a year since Vanderbilt announced volleyball’s return, he is the reason the program is already the work of a lifetime.

“I believe a college athletic career is so sacred and special—my career gave me so much and gave my sister so much,” Nelson said. “The coolest part of coaching is being a small part of that journey for someone and trying to make it the best four years of an athlete’s life up to that point.

“A student-athlete’s college years are transformative years, so getting to be a piece of that and facilitating growth and development throughout those years makes coaching, in my opinion, the most rewarding job there is.”

The Road Less Taken

Like many small-town kids who show natural athleticism, Nelson played a sport for every season growing up. He participated in cross country, baseball and basketball, as might be expected of someone who now stands 6-foot-9. None appealed to him as much as volleyball.

His sister, three years older, started playing volleyball in middle school and soon joined an elite club team near Minneapolis, roughly 50 miles south of their hometown. By the time he was in middle school, Nelson traveled to his sister’s club tournaments and helped their mom sort through the recruiting mailers that inundated the mailbox when the family returned home. In high school, he often finished cross country practice only to run some more—racing to the gym to see if the volleyball team needed an extra body for their final drills.

Yet while Wisconsin reinstated boys volleyball as a championship-level high school sport in 2000 after a long hiatus, St. Croix Falls High School didn’t have a team during the years Anders attended. It wasn’t until he followed his sister’s path to the University of Minnesota and joined the men’s club team that he had the opportunity to play competitively.

“Being 6-foot-9, they welcomed me with open arms,” Nelson said, chuckling. “It was a really special group. Club sports are different—you only play because you love the sport. That team played every chance it could. I was finally around people that were like me and obsessed with volleyball, and we played all the time.”

In his other role as student-manager for the women’s team, Nelson got to know assistant coach Dave Boos, now associate head coach at Florida. When Boos left for a position at Ball State after Nelson’s sophomore year, the coach invited him to Muncie to work at a volleyball camp. While there, Nelson played pick-up games with student-athletes from Ball State’s men’s team. They, in turn, told head coach Joel Walton that he should take a look at the camp counselor. Within a matter of weeks, those chance encounters led him to transfer and join the program. He played three seasons for the Cardinals, earning all-conference academic honors all three years, all-conference honors for his on-court performance in his final two seasons and AVCA All-America honors in his final season.

The opportunity to challenge himself at the Division I level appealed to Nelson, but it wasn’t the only consideration that drew him to Muncie. While Indiana is better known for basketball, Ball State is home to one of the most historically successful men’s volleyball programs. As a result of those deep roots, the Cardinals coaching tree spreads its limbs throughout men’s and women’s collegiate volleyball—including Ball State alumnus and longtime Kentucky women’s volleyball head coach Craig Skinner, alongside whom Nelson eventually won a national championship. Transferring offered Nelson a chance to play in the short term but also a coaching education unavailable almost anywhere and connections that would last well beyond his final block.

Even while he competed on the court and excelled in his studies, Nelson took on coaching duties as an assistant coach at Muncie’s Burris Laboratory School, a K–12 school affiliated with the university. A girls’ volleyball powerhouse, not surprisingly given the university connection, Burris won 14 consecutive state titles between 1997 and 2011, including two with Nelson on staff. He quickly expanded his portfolio by coaching with the nationally renowned Munciana Volleyball Club, founded by Steve Shondell, the head coach who also won 21 state titles at Burris and whose father started the Ball State men’s program.

Shondell recalls a young coach, more quiet than brash, who nonetheless commanded the attention of young athletes without demanding it. Perhaps height offered natural gravitas, but they listened to him. In 2011, the club team he helped coach won the AAU 18 Open National Championship, led by future Kentucky All-American Morgan Bergren.

“The girls just absolutely loved him because he’s got a personality that they just enjoy playing for,” Shondell said. “He communicates very well with athletes in a positive way, and I liked the fact that he was a positive coach. He’s going to build your confidence rather than tear it down. Those are the coaches that the girls like to play for, and that’s who Anders is.”

Finding His Voice in Lexington

Coaching became his full-time calling upon graduation in 2011. After one season as a volunteer assistant at Kentucky and another as an assistant at Arkansas, he returned to Lexington in 2013 to learn from a mentor in Skinner who was in the process of building a winner in the SEC. Following a lean decade prior to Skinner’s arrival, Kentucky had by then emerged as one of the conference’s bright lights—regularly cracking the top 25 and advancing to the NCAA tournament, if not yet challenging for national titles. For a young coach, it was an opportunity to grow but one that came with an expectation to grow quickly.

The interpersonal communication that coaching demands always came naturally, as the reviews from Muncie indicated. Yet on the court, by his own admission, he sometimes viewed the technical side of the craft in terms of absolutes. There was a right and wrong way to teach skills and a right and wrong way for student-athletes to execute them. His time at Kentucky soon taught him that the best teams aren’t made up of identical robots but individuals maximizing their unique potential. He had a natural ability to connect with people. All he had to do was trust it to teach the game.

“At the end of the day, the best coaches are authentic and are themselves,” Nelson said. “Just being in an environment for as long as I was, it allows you to get comfortable and get confident in your abilities and see results from the job you’re doing, whether it be in recruiting or in the gym. I learned that I don’t have to try to be somebody else. You need to be yourself.”

Student-athlete Kaz Brown arrived in Lexington in 2014, just a year into his second stint with the Wildcats. As a middle blocker, his former position, she worked closely with Nelson, growing into her role on the court and he did the same as a coach. An All-SEC Freshman team honoree, she earned All-SEC honors each of the next three seasons and All-America honors as a senior. Currently competing in the Athletes Unlimited professional league in the United States, after several stints in overseas leagues, she says she continues to play and thrive in large part because of the potential Nelson helped her unlock.

“He didn’t try to change me as a person or change my playing style,” Brown said. “He just tried to better me as a person and a player, and that’s really good. I think some coaches want to break players down and then try and rebuild them. It was never like that with ‘Ders.’ He saw my best qualities as a player and found a way to highlight those even more during my time at Kentucky. He was always coming to us with new challenges, and we had so much respect for him that we were excited when we were tasked with those challenges. It was motivating.”

The program and its young assistant grew apace. Nelson earned a promotion to associate head coach in 2016. A year later, Kentucky’s upward trajectory saw the Wildcats spend most of the season ranked in the top 10, win a share of the SEC title for the first time in nearly 30 years and advance to the Elite Eight. The next year, in 2018, they went undefeated in the conference and won the second of what currently stands at six consecutive outright or shared SEC titles.

The crowning achievement came in the most challenging of seasons. After winning another SEC title in the spring of 2021, a season split into fall and spring segments by the COVID-19 pandemic, Kentucky waited until the following spring to compete in a rescheduled NCAA tournament. Despite losing the opening set of the final against traditional power Texas, Kentucky rallied to win the next three sets and the SEC’s first national championship.

Although any first-time champion is likely to be labeled an upstart, success almost inevitably has a history. As Kentucky star Madison Lilley, the Final Four Most Outstanding Player and AVCA National Player of the Year, put it, “that kind of culture and tradition is built over time.”

Nelson was hardly the project’s sole architect. Skinner began laying the foundation even before Nelson arrived in Lexington. But in the young assistant coach, Kentucky found someone whose vision for what mattered—and ability to communicate that message—fueled growth. Kentucky didn’t take shortcuts. It built with a plan that Nelson didn’t just serve but helped shape.

“Ders played a massive part in our recruiting process and we were always bringing in amazing people—amazing volleyball players but amazing people,” Lilley said. “The type of people he brings in at Vanderbilt is something that is going to be awesome to watch because I know that he places a lot of value on that. And when value is placed on the people you’re around every single day, that’s when the culture and tradition start off on the right foot.”

A Vision for Vanderbilt

For Candice Lee, vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs and athletic director, the road that led to Nelson began years ago when her late friend, mentor and former athletic director David Williams II asked her and others to study sports for possible future expansion.

Again and again, the conversation in those years turned to volleyball, even if the timing never proved right. She filed away the idea until 2021, when she and Chancellor Daniel Diermeier announced the Vandy United capital campaign, an unprecedented $300 million investment in athletics. Among many projects, the historic campaign included a new basketball operations center. When the men’s and women’s basketball programs relocated to the new facility, prime practice and office space in Memorial Gym would become available.

Convinced that adding a sport already played in the SEC made the most sense, Lee saw volleyball as a natural fit in the reimagined blueprint made possible by Vandy United.

“Competing and winning at the highest level are part of a premier student-athlete experience,” Lee said. “We think about sports as an extension of the educational experience at Vanderbilt. It is an immersive experience that complements what you’re doing in the classroom and in the community. There are so many transferrable skills. And you spend so much time on your craft as an elite athlete—far too much time and energy and heart to not want to win at the highest level.

“From what I’ve been able to ascertain from studying volleyball and talking to a lot of people, along with our administrative team, we can compete at a high level in this sport.”

In Nelson, Lee and her team found someone who understood what a championship environment looked like, what it took to accomplish that in the SEC and, just as importantly, wasn’t shy about believing Vanderbilt could climb the ladder sooner rather than later.

“My goal is to make the NCAA tournament by the second or third year that we’re competing—and I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that we could do it the first year,” Nelson said. “I know what Vanderbilt has to offer, and I know that our staff is going to work tirelessly to bring in a couple of great recruiting classes to start.”

If that sounds ambitious, it’s not without precedent. Although a different sport, Clemson and Duke each added softball in recent years. Both Power 5 schools employed a slow build, hiring coaches more than two years ahead of the start of play. Both programs prospered almost immediately, reaching the NCAA softball tournament’s final 16 within five seasons.

Nelson will follow a similar model ahead of Vanderbilt’s on-court debut in the 2025–26 academic year. He has already hired two assistants, Russell Corbelli and Lauren Plum. Together, they will begin a recruiting process that will welcome the relaunched program’s first student-athletes for the 2024–25 academic year. Those student-athletes will redshirt the first season, playing a limited number of exhibition matches, with a full roster assembling the next year.

As shorthand for his core coaching beliefs, Nelson speaks often of encouraging student-athletes to “shatter your ceilings.” It’s the idea of finding people who want to challenge themselves and, as he puts it, “come here as one person and leave as another.” That will be as true of those he recruits a decade from now as it is for the first classes. But for those initial classes, the student-athletes who will invest solely in a vision of what is possible, the phrase is even more resonant. The more they shatter their ceilings, the more room they give the program to grow and thrive.

“I want people who are excited about firsts because there are going to be a ton of firsts,” Nelson said. “You’re going to put the uniform on for the first time. You’re going to hear the PA announcer in our gym for the very first time, play in the very first match, put your name in the record book for the first time, and there are going to be so many things that are firsts.

“I’m looking for people who are driven by that and hungry to do things for the first time.”

All the while knowing that sometimes the first time is a long time coming.

And that it’s worth the wait.

One of the first texts Nelson received after he accepted the offer from Vanderbilt was from his mom, with whom he sorted his sister’s recruiting letters and who listened to her son, still barely a teenager, talk about wanting to coach. Just like the men and women who made their way to a small Wisconsin town and opened up a world of possibility to a sister and brother.

All these years later, the text read simply “Dreams come true.”

For Vanderbilt, that’s the plan.