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All-Area Volleyball Player of the Year: Z-M's Nelson rode diversity to an unmatched season

Rylee Nelson, a Zumbrota-Mazeppa senior, is the Post Bulletin's 2022 Volleyball Player of the Year after dominating in so many categories.

Zumbrota-Mazeppa's Rylee Nelson
Zumbrota-Mazeppa's Rylee Nelson on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022, in Rochester. Nelson is the Post Bulletin's Volleyball Player of the Year for 2022.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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ZUMBROTA — Where to put Rylee Nelson?

Turns out that “everywhere” is the best answer.

This volleyball season, all of that hopscotching, jumping, smacking and diving around worked out into these rare statistics for the Zumbrota-Mazeppa senior star: 310 kills, 432 assists, 346 digs, 61 blocks, 19 aces.

Mayo's Hannah Hanson, Century's Paige Decker, Zumbrota-Mazeppa's Rylee Nelson and Cannon Falls' Madison Burr lead the veterans on this PB All-Area Volleyball team, while Mabel-Canton's Sahara Morken headlines the youngsters.

Those are huge numbers and breathtaking with their diversity.

All of it guided Z-M to a win-heavy season (25-5 overall), a top-two ranking in the state in Class AA, large smiles on the faces of the coaches from Seton Hall University, a Division I program, who can’t wait to direct her next season and the most fun that Nelson has ever had wearing a Z-M jersey.

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Oh, and it also brought this: Nelson is the Post Bulletin’s 2022 All-Area Volleyball Player of the Year.

“Being versatile made it so fun,” said Nelson, who was coached by her mom, Lisa Nelson, at Zumbrota-Mazeppa. “Not a lot of people get to play every position. But I literally played every position. It’s fun to play on the outside, fun to play on the right side, fun to serve-receive and fun to set.”

It’s all the more enjoyable when it comes with such apparent ease. That was the case for Nelson, though the 5-foot-9 senior has had the benefit of being nurtured into this, her first peeking over at volleyball practices as a 1-year-old as she sat in her baby car seat in the gymnasium.

Zumbrota-Mazeppa's Rylee Nelson
Zumbrota-Mazeppa's Rylee Nelson on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022, in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Nelson can’t ever recall a time when volleyball wasn’t front and center in her life. Nor can her mom, who’s been coaching the game since Rylee was born. Lisa didn’t do the babysitter thing in her early years as a coach. Instead, she’d land Rylee on the gymnasium stage in that car seat where volleyball immediately began to seep into her soul.

It’s never left. In fact, it’s taken over.

“Yeah, Rylee is that kid who I’d carry in her car seat onto the gym stage,” Lisa said. “She was raised in a gym. Volleyball has always been her deal. When she was a kindergartner, she could already pass better than many of our eighth graders.”

Do-it-all star

Now, she passes — and hits, and digs, and blocks, and serves — well enough to have landed a Division I volleyball scholarship to Seton Hall University, in South Orange, N.J.

Opposing coaches in southeastern Minnesota have forever been taking note of Nelson, who first started for Z-M as an eighth-grader.

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Count Stewartville Hall of Fame coach John Dzubay among those who've been blown away by her.

“(Nelson) can do everything,” Dzubay said. “She sets for them, she’s their leading hitter. ... I’ve also watched her play for Northern Lights (an elite-level Junior Olympic team in Minnesota). There, she played libero for them and you just can’t hit it at her because she can stop anything. For someone to be that good at hitting, setting and defense, that is the whole ball of wax. There isn’t a part that she can’t do.”

Setting goals

Nelson approached this past high school off-season with two things in mind. One of them was to improve as a hitter.

A setter for the first three years of her Z-M career, she was moved to a hitting position for the first time as a junior after growing 4 inches as a sophomore, up to her current 5-foot-9. Nelson played well as a hitter last year but hoped to take another jump.

She took the word “jump” literally, digging in to improve what was already a solid vertical jump with continuous workout sessions at ETS in Rochester.

“My vertical jump went up a lot,” Nelson said. “Adding speed and strength with those exercise (sessions) at ETS really helped.”

Nelson’s on-court numbers took a jump along with it, going from 216 kills as a junior to 310 this year.

Nelson’s other primary focus was to become a better leader. On the quiet side by nature, Nelson was determined to come out of that, sure that her team needed her to.

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“I wanted to be more of a vocal leader, because I’ve always been shy,” Nelson said. “I focused on that, wanting to lead with my words. Leadership is important, because if you don’t have that on your team, you don’t go far.”

Nelson and the Cougars didn’t go as far as they wanted to in the postseason. The No. 1 seed in the Section 1AA tournament, they were upset by Plainview-Elgin-Millville in the semifinals.

But the rest of the season was loaded with highs, including climbing all the way to the No. 2 ranking in the state.

That quiet girl, Nelson, came out of her shell. Z-M libero Torey Stencel considered her the ideal teammate. Nelson became the team’s go-to, on and off the court.

She is the one that everybody admired and listened to most.

“Rylee was always encouraging everyone on our team to do their best and play to their potential,” Stencel said. “We all looked up to her because she was always giving her all. She was always there for us.”

Section 1A, 1AA girls volleyball semifinals
Zumbrota-Mazeppa’s Rylee Nelson (7) hits the ball during a Section 1AA girls volleyball semifinal match against Caledonia on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022, at Mayo Civic Center in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin file photo

Related Topics: ZUMBROTA-MAZEPPAVOLLEYBALL
Pat has been a Post Bulletin sports reporter since 1994. He covers Rochester John Marshall football, as well as a variety of other southeastern Minnesota football teams. Among my other southeastern Minnesota high school beats are girls basketball, boys and girls tennis, boys and girls track and field, high school and American Legion baseball, volleyball, University of Minnesota sports (on occasion) and the Timberwolves (on occasion). Readers can reach Pat at 507-285-7723 or pruff@postbulletin.com.
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