Sophomore Grace Nelson has been on quite a roll for the Oak Park and River Forest High School girls volleyball team for the past year.
She was named to the All-West Suburban Conference team in the spring and then enjoyed an outstanding summer with her club team, First Alliance/Lions Juniors. Her performances led to a few invitations to prestigious summer camps, including the Under Armour All-American and USA Developmental.
Nelson’s efforts have paid off as she is currently one of the nation’s top 100 prospects in the Class of 2024.
“I don’t really know,” said Nelson, when asked to explain the reasons for her success. “Both my school and club teams are uplifting. I think it depends on who you’re with that helps you to be successful.”
Nelson’s volleyball proficiency shouldn’t be a surprise given her family’s rich athletic background. Her parents, Ellen and Scott, and her sisters, Allie, Kiley and Maeve, had excellent careers as OPRF student-athletes in multiple sports.
Ellen (Iowa), Allie (Kansas), and Kiley (Illinois) played college volleyball; Scott had a minor league baseball career; and Maeve currently plays shortstop for the Northwestern University softball team.
While Nelson is proud of her family’s athletic success, she doesn’t feel any pressure upholding the legacy.
“They’re my biggest supporters; we all cheer for each other,” she said. “We’re all super competitive, but it pushes us to be good.”
OPRF girls volleyball head coach Kelly Collins is glad to have Nelson on her team, crediting her competitiveness in clutch situations.
“When the game is on the line, we’re confident that when we give her the ball, she’s going to find a way to put it away,” she said. “Grace is an outstanding player. She’s skilled and can hit from anywhere on the court, has great versatility with her shots and is an all-around player that can play six positions.”
Nelson’s dominance was on display Sept. 23 as the Huskies (14-9) defeated crosstown rival Fenwick High School (9-9) in two sets (25-23, 29-27). She finished with 13 kills, 10 digs, two blocks, and an ace.
Nelson was at her best late in the second set, coming up with multiple kills as the Friars had set point three times.
“She’s a super nice player; we have a lot of respect for [Nelson],” said Fenwick coach Kathleen O’Laughlin. “They were able to get her the ball at the right times, and she made some big-time plays. That’s what big-time players do.”
But OPRF is far from a one-woman team, and the balance the Huskies have displayed has been critical to this year’s success. Against Fenwick, Rebecca Gutierrez had five kills and two blocks. Ella Olson contributed 10 digs, while Cate Wollmuth had five kills and five digs, Molly Brown had 10 assists and Maeve Moran had 13 assists.
“We have a nice, balanced offense,” Collins said. “We rely on our middles — Rebecca, Ella, and Reese [Garland] — to step up. Everyone knows the ball is going to Grace, and we’ve got to make sure our system is balanced.”
“I think we’ve come together and shown that we can do our jobs,” added Nelson. “That’s what makes us good right now. We’ve developed a lot the last couple of weeks and it’s awesome to see.”
Fenwick received strong performances from Elise Heneghan (12 kills), Shannon O’Laughlin (11 kills), Maeve Welsh (10 digs) and Audrey Hinrichs (5 blocks).
“Our left-side hitters did a nice job tonight,” Kathleen O’Laughlin said. “They did were they were supposed to do. It was a tight match. We’re pretty evenly matched.”
OPRF is vying for the West Suburban Silver conference championship, and Collins feels good about the Huskies’ chances.
“We had a big win against Downers Grove North [Sept. 21] that allowed us to stay in the race,” she said. “We’re a contender and that’s where we want to stay.”