When Oak Park and River Forest H.S. senior volleyball star Kiley Nelson played her final home game for the Huskies on Oct. 22, it marked not the end of an era but the end of the beginning of one.
With Kiley pounding balls for kills and her sophomore sister, Allie, a defensive specialist, digging them up, the Huskies (29-9) have enjoyed their best season in years, beating De La Salle 25-14, 25-21 to win a regional title last Thursday and advance to the Class 4A Morton Sectional semifinals this week.
For long-time OPRF fans, that has brought a feeling of déjà vu, harkening back to the 1980s when the Huskies were dominant and the Nelsons' parents were local stars.
Scott Nelson, a 1985 OPRF graduate, was a star baseball player who led the Huskies to the state semifinals in 1984 and 1985 before playing minor league baseball with the White Sox, Brewers and Giants. He now owns Strikes Baseball Academy in Broadview, where he teaches the next generation of baseball players.
Scott's wife, the former Ellen Mullarkey, graduated in 1984 after a standout volleyball career during an era when the Huskies were at their peak. She went on to become a two-time All-Big Ten player at Iowa.
Now their children are following in their footsteps. Kiley, who was a middle hitter until switching to outside hitter this season, is the oldest of five children. The clan also includes Maeve, an eighth-grade softball player who already is drawing college scouts, second-grader Grace, and John, who is in kindergarten.
"The basketball coach at Fenwick [Dave Power], he's known me since I was in high school," Ellen said. "He says, 'Why don't you send some of your girls to Fenwick?' But we've always wanted them to be at Oak Park because it's a great school."
The school has welcomed the newest generation with open arms.
"It's been awesome," Kiley said. "A lot of teachers and coaches have played with or coached my mom, so there's a lot of Nelson recognition going on. The freshman B coach, Ms. [Shirley] Redmond, was Mom's varsity coach. She's a big Nelson cheerleader."
A lot of kids follow their parents into the same sports, but usually not at the same school. Living up to a legacy can be hard on young athletes but that hasn't been the case for the Nelsons.
"Initially I think it was a lot of pressure to keep up the Nelson name because a lot of people outside Oak Park would say, 'Oh, you're a Nelson, you must be a great athlete,'" Kiley said. "But it was mostly pressure I put on myself.
"It didn't come from my parents. They wanted to see me do well and they were very supportive. That's helped me become a better athlete."
It also gave Kiley the independence to follow her own path, which means she will probably not play college volleyball. A bright girl who has a 4.6 GPA (out of 4.0), she is being recruited by many smaller schools but wants to attend a Big Ten school and study business.
"It was a tough decision because I really love volleyball and I want to play in college, but Division I volleyball would be difficult for me and I want to focus on academics," Kiley said. "Plus, I'm a homebody. I have four younger siblings I want to be able to come home and watch and the schools I was looking at for volleyball were kind of far away."
In contrast, Allie definitely wants to play Division I volleyball and has already drawn interest from several big schools. For her, being the daughter of star athletes is a bonus.
"I think it's really cool that I go to the same high school my parents did," Allie said. "A lot of my teachers will say to me, 'Oh, I knew your parents.'
"I think it's a benefit when you have parents who were great athletes because you always want to beat them and say you were better than them, and they want you to be better. That kind of excites me."
Though both sisters play other sports – Kiley played basketball her first two years and Allie is a soccer forward – they play volleyball year-round and compete with each other on the court.
"We fight a lot on the court because if she makes a mistake I'll be like, 'Seriously, you know how to do that,' and she's the same way," Allie said. "Our teammates will be like, 'Will you stop fighting?' But it's what we do. That's how we push each other and bring out the best in each other.'
"She's a student of the game and always tells me where to go with the pass or shot," Kiley said. "She's a great libero. We have a lot of fun and we have to rely on each other a lot."
While the Huskies have plenty of other talented players, they rely heavily on the Nelsons. Kiley has 144 kills on a .303 hitting percentage and 140 digs, while Allie has 156 digs against just three errors. Both are excellent servers and effective passers, with Kiley's serve-receive average being 2.42 on a 3.0 scale and Allie's 2.40.
"What the stats will not show is the energy and leadership that they both bring to the team," OPRF coach Don August said. "They both play with an intensity that carries over to the other players. They never quit on any play and that hustle and determination makes us a much better team."
It also is why the elder Nelsons have had so much fun this season, the last Kiley and Allie will play together.
"We love every minute of watching them together because they bring a special energy and chemistry to their team," Ellen said. "I think they're incredible athletes. At the Lake Park tournament the Kansas coach said to me, 'I love the sister act and I love their energy.'"
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