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After two tough seasons, Nevada volleyball surges into Mountain West play with momentum

Kayla Afoa's return to Nevada's lineup this season has the Wolf Pack above-.500 heading into Mountain West play Thursday. (Janay Hagans/Nevada athletics)
Kayla Afoa's return to Nevada's lineup this season has the Wolf Pack above-.500 heading into Mountain West play Thursday. (Janay Hagans/Nevada athletics)
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Nevada volleyball posted as many wins this non-conference season — six — as it had in the previous two seasons combined.

After going 3-12 in the spring 2021 season and 3-26 in the fall 2021 season, the Wolf Pack enters Mountain West play this week sitting at 6-5. That includes a win at Pac-12 program Cal, which is 7-2 outside of that Wolf Pack match.

Lee Nelson, the Wolf Pack's seventh-year head coach, attributed his team's turnaround to two main things — being healthy and happy.

It hasn't been since 2019 when Nevada had a healthy roster, which forced many practice sessions to include the team's coaches. At one point last year, Nevada has zero subs for a match. Now armed with a fully healthy roster, Nelson's crew has proven to be a more formidable foe. After an 0-3 start this season, Nevada is 6-2 in its last eight matches.

"You don't know after a season like last year," Nelson said. "It was pretty rough. A lot of people hurt, and there's a certain confidence issue. We start off 0-3 this season but played Portland really tough. Actually scored more points but lost in five. Our other loss recently, to Utah Tech, was in five. And then we lost to Oklahoma in Oklahoma. They've played well and with confidence. They're kind of figuring each other out. Good momentum on the court and good momentum in practices. I'm pretty happy with where we're at."

Nelson said Nevada also has focused on having fun and building its chemistry. The Wolf Pack has lost a lot of talented transfers in recent years but seems to have found the right mix of players and personalities this season while investing more time into things beyond the court.

"We had some pretty personal meetings as a team to kind of have some conversations about who we were individually and as a team," Nelson said. "A lot of players really opened up about who they were and the struggles they were facing. I think that laid a solid foundation for us to go out there and be ourselves and play hard. When we're competing and making big plays, our bench is just so invested. I'm watching film of us and I see people on our bench diving out on the ground when somebody makes a great play and running in circles, and they're doing all this nutty stuff, and you just can't help but smile and want to be apart of that.

"Our starters feel it. When our bench players get a chance to play, everybody goes crazy for them. It's just an environment where sports are supposed to be fun. It's not supposed to be a job. There's a certain professionalism involved. But you need to find joy in it or what are you doing it for? This group has been really, really good at that, and I think that carries over into how we play."

The return of Kayla Afoa, one of the Mountain West's top players, has had a big impact, too. The two-time all-conference player missed the previous two seasons with a torn ACL suffered in January 2021. Her return has been big for a young team that's still light on experience with seven freshmen on the roster.

"She's a graduate student now," Nelson said of Afoa. "She's in her sixth year in college. We have a lot of freshmen on the squad. We have a JC transfer at libero. That can be a recipe for chaos in a lot of situations. But Kayla has kind of been the port in the storm that let's us deal with some of the craziness and inexperience and let us know there's always going to be somebody who's been there and done that. That's not even counting the fact she leads the conference in points and is our biggest kill leader. She plays great defense, a solid passer, great server, a really good blocker. She just brings a knowledge and experience that you can't expect out of somebody who's a freshman as well as the fact she's that calming force out there. She's been so valuable for us."

The Wolf Pack has a smaller roster than most college volleyball teams with a pair of 5-foot-8 outside hitters in Afoa and freshman Gabby McLaughlin, who has been one of the MW's top rookies. With less size, Nevada's mindset this season has been to grind teams over long matches and ultimately out-work them. That's led to some success in non-conference play as the Wolf Pack opens MW action Thursday at Fresno State before a Saturday match at San Diego State. Nevada's home opener is Sept. 29 against Utah State.

Nelson said the MW's overall play has been uneven as some teams break in key new pieces following COVID-19's impact giving some players an additional year of eligibility in 2021 who are no longer on the roster in 2022. The Wolf Pack's goal is to make this year's conference tournament, which hadn't been played since 2011 before being reinstated last season. The top-six teams in the 12-team conference qualify for the tournament.

"I think it'd be awesome, and I think this team can absolutely do it," Nelson said of making the MW Tournament. "It's a question of our consistency. If we can do what we did against Cal throughout our conference season, I think we'll absolutely be there. Just to play postseason, we haven't done that in quite a while. That's pretty special when some teams are going home and you're saying, 'Where are we going? Who are we playing? Let's get ready for this team who we've played against but it's for all the marbles and it's one-and-done now.' There's a different mentality with that, and winning those matches there's a certain kind of celebration, because you're either in or you're out, that I'd love to be able to share with this team."

You can watch Lee Nelson's full NSN Daily interview below.

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