Goofball off the court, focused demon on it.
That comes pretty close to describing Madison Nelson, the former Dover-Eyota star basketball player who has settled into a similar stardom at Division I University of Denver.
“You watch her interactions with the other girls — away from the court — and she is a goofball in a fun way,” Denver second-year coach Jim Turgeon said. “But on the court, she is serious. Basketball is important to her. She goes to work.”
Never has the “worker” label been more fitting than this season for the athletic and determined Nelson, a 6-foot-1 forward/center.
Take what happened on Nov. 23 as the best evidence. On display was Nelson at her quintessential best, willing her team to a 117-110 double-overtime win over Lamar.
Nelson played a team-high 43 minutes in that contest.
“She’s just got a great motor,” Turgeon said, “and she never stops working on the court.”
While never staggering those 43 minutes, she put on a performance that was staggering. Nelson grabbed 20 rebounds that night, seven of them on the offense end. She also totaled 23 points (7-for-13 shooting) and blocked a pair of shots.
Nothing funny about any of that from the Pioneers’ resident “goofball,” especially if you’re Lamar.
“That was a long and fun game,” said Nelson, who’s averaging 15 points and 10 rebounds, up from eight and six, respectively, last year. “When I can get rebounds like that it really helps us, because it keeps the other team from scoring and gives us extra chances (to score).”
When Nelson signed on to play at Denver, it wasn’t without reservation. Not only was she going to a city of 705,000 residents after growing up in Dover — population 755 — but she was leaving her tight-knit family and a state she adores.
“It was a bit of a culture shock, going from Dover to Denver,” Nelson said. “But it’s been fun to try something different for a while. It took a while to get used to the traffic, but it is nice here with the (Rocky) mountains. Just 25 minutes away from us, we can be in the mountains. We do a lot of hiking when we can. It’s hard to beat the views in Denver.”
While the scenery can give Nelson a Rocky Mountain “high,” so too can playing on this team. The Pioneers have made major strides since Turgeon has come aboard. They’ve gone from finishing 6-24 Nelson’s freshman year, to 16-14 last year (Turgeon’s first), to their current 7-3.
“I feel like we are just now tapping into our potential,” said Nelson, who credits extensive weight lifting this offseason for taking her game — especially her rebounding — to new heights. “Everyone has taken on their roles instead of trying to do things as individuals.”
Nelson credits Turgeon above all for that turnaround. She says he has a way of pushing players to their potential. But it is the playing style that he’s employed that Nelson appreciates most, with the team getting up and down the court in a hurry and averaging a steep 84 points per game.
Up-tempo basketball fits Nelson perfectly as player who is long and fast, and has excellent variety to her game.
“It’s a fun style,” Nelson said. “It’s the style we played in high school (when Nelson’s Dover-Eyota team won a state championship her junior season). It’s fast. I think a lot of girls on our team feel a lot more comfortable with that than what we were doing (her freshman year).”
The Pioneers have a chance to test that style against a Big Ten Conference foe today, as Denver plays at Nebraska (3:30 p.m.).
As a mid-major team taking on a high-major one, Denver will be the obvious underdog.
But Nelson has no problem with that.
“I feel like they will be underestimating us,” Nelson said. “But our mindset is just play hard, that there is no reason to be scared.”