For the UCSB women’s volleyball team to have the type of success it wants this year and after, much of it will depend on the play of freshman setter Hanna Nielson. Nielson, who plans to major in communications, started playing volleyball in fourth grade and credits her sister for getting her interested in playing volleyball.
“My older sister [Bryte] played in high school and at Cal,” Nielson explained. “So I’ve been around the sport for a really long time.”
Other than her sister, Nielson lists Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh, who is from her hometown of Saratoga, is her favorite volleyball player. At Saratoga High, Nielson was selected for All-Central Coast all four years and led her team to the postseason three of those years.
“My high school team was not that good,” Nielson said. “It was mainly for fun. Club is where it started getting really competitive, when I was 14 and 15 … that’s when you know you’re gonna go to the next level.”
Playing for Vision Volleyball Club, Nielson won the Bronze Medal in the Junior Olympics two years in a row, for the Vision 17 Team and the Vision 18 Gold Team.
“That was really cool because the Junior Olympics is what you’re looking forward to all year,” Nielson said.
For Nielson, deciding to play at Santa Barbara was an easy choice.
“Starting freshman year, I always had [UCSB] in mind,” Nielson said. “I committed in May of my junior year … that made it really fun my senior year because I didn’t have to do tons of applications.”
Besides choosing where to go to school, Nielson also had to decide between pursuing volleyball and basketball. She played for Saratoga High’s basketball team her freshman year, when it won the league title, but stopped playing after her sophomore year.
“I had to choose between them … but I knew I wanted to play volleyball in college,” Nielson said.
Less than two months into the season, Nielson mentioned the biggest difference between high school and playing at the college level is the commitment it takes.
“Since we’re in season, our whole life is volleyball,” Nielson said. “Every decision we make has to be about what’s best for our team.”
Nielson also talked about how the biggest goal for UCSB this season is to make it to the NCAAs by winning the Big West. Currently the team is tied for second place behind Long Beach State.
“We have the ability to do it,” Nielson said. “The biggest thing for me is to stay consistent with my sets and help the team as much as I can.”
There is a lot of responsibility that comes with taking over as starting setter as a freshman, something Nielson hopes will make her a better player as she gets more experience.
“The most important thing is to make the best choices I can, because I get the ball every play,” Nielson said. “What is hard for me being a freshman — is to be a leader on the court and be more vocal. That should come with time as I get more comfortable with the team.”
Nielson said while this can be a big transition for the freshmen, all their practices together and things like team lunches have gotten her more familiar with her team.
“To her credit, she’s very humble and coachable,” Gregory said. “We’ve had some very good wins because of it.”
With 11 wins and nine losses on the season, two matches in particular stand out for Nielson in her young career.
“The Santa Clara game [on Sept. 9] was a good start,” Nielson said. “It was a big win and good to know we have the ability to beat good teams … also when we swept Irvine [on Oct. 8] we all had our best game.”
In the 3-1 win over Santa Clara, Nielson had 11 digs to go along with 37 assists, and totaled seven digs and 36 assists in the Irvine win. She is averaging over 10 assists per set this season and her total of 818 assists is third in the Big West.
“Her strength is she sets a good rhythm; her weakness is she can’t block as well,” Gregory said. “But she’s a natural setter with good hands and can set all locations.”
Nielson returns to the court as the Gauchos host Cal State Fullerton this Friday.