NCAA Womens Volleyball

Volleyball | Beginning in the Middle

Volleyball | Beginning in the Middle

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…

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