Realities of a Setter

(Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)

Who has played just about every sport, is ambidextrous, the youngest of five kids with four older sisters, a neuroscience major, likes "coach-on-ones," a Junior Olympic All-American, National Champion, Med-school candidate and his biggest dream is to be a good father? That would have to be the jack-of-all-trades senior setter, Rob Neilson.

Neilson grew up all over the country; namely in Utah, Connecticut and then went to high school in Pacific Palisades, California. Neilson is the youngest of five children with four older sisters who beat him up, as he says.

"All of my sisters are level-headed and ambitious women who had and continue to have a great influence on me and who I am today," he said. "I wanted to be everything my second oldest sister Kari was [who played soccer for BYU]. She was left handed, so I tried to use my left hand as well. I would shoot left-handed in basketball and would kick left-footed in soccer. I am kind of ambidextrous thanks to her."

"Growing up I played just about everything--soccer, basketball, baseball and tennis," he said. "I only started playing volleyball my freshman year of high school. I had touched a volleyball about two times before trying out for the team my freshman year."

While sports were his main thing growing up, he didn't have much time for anything else. "I just studied and played sports, but I wish I would've learned how to play the piano."

During high school, tennis and volleyball were at the same time so Neilson planned on playing tennis. "I talked with the tennis coach about me being on the team, but he was a jerk and very condescending so I didn't want to play for him. One of my buddies told me I should play volleyball, so I did. It was a good sport to play in the off-season of basketball."

He recalled an early volleyball memory he had, not one of his own, but a guy on his team. "In an away game in high school when one of the guys on my team went to dive for a ball, he dove right into the cheerleaders and asked for one of their numbers while he was at it. That was really funny."

Neilson has been a setter his whole volleyball career because he wasn't as tall as he is now. When starting high school he was only 5'10" or so, and with his mom only being 5'3" and his dad 5'10", he thought he was pretty much done growing making setter the natural position for him to play. Even though he thought he wasn't going to be very tall, his coach had something else in mind.

"We had a drill called a 'coach-on-one' where the coach would hit volleyballs at you as punishment for coming late to practice or whatever. So my coach, Dave Suarez said I had to do 'coach-on-ones' every day until I grew to be 6'2". Now he takes all the credit for me being 6'3"."

Now that he's tall enough to set, block and hit well, he and his coaches are grateful for his height.

After his sophomore year of high school he played for the LAAC Club that won a gold medal in the 1997 Junior Olympics. He was also honored as a Junior Olympic All-American that year.

Following that he figured he had a pretty good chance of playing volleyball in college.

His junior year of high school he said his team did really well, "We finished second at three tournaments that had the best teams in the country playing at them. But after that year, the whole team graduated besides me, and we were horrible my senior year."

"Hugh McCutcheon who did the recruiting for BYU saw me play at a club tournament and invited me to come to BYU's summer volleyball camp following my junior year," he said. "That's where Taylor Evans, Chris Gorny and I were all recruited."

After coming to BYU he redshirted his freshman year and then served a mission in Croatia.

Coming back off his mission he waited for any time he could be subbed in for All-American setter Carlos Moreno. "I felt physically prepared to take over Moreno's spot because we'd compete against each other every day in practice. It was the mental preparation and focus required to play an entire match where I felt lacking. That's what has come with some experience."

Neilson was privileged to learn from two amazing BYU coaches-Carl McGown and the current head coach, Tom Peterson. He said that McGown was more technical while Peterson is more psychological. Although as a setter, he works with Grayson DuBose, the setter's coach. "He has helped me to be an even more advanced setter through watching film, creating game-plans and doing extra reps, I owe a lot of my progress to him [DuBose]."

His expectations for this season are to win a national championship. While it's his senior year, he says, "You can't expect anything less."

The fact that we have so much depth is similar to the 2004 team, it was lack experience in practice for the second team and playing well together in matches for the first team that hurt us last year in 2005.

The last time the BYU men's volleyball team won a national championship was in 2004, and Neilson was there. "Even though I was mostly on the bench, I was sitting there being nervous and us finally pulling it out in game five and rushing the court. That was a great experience and my favorite volleyball moment at BYU. I hope to have that same moment this year as well."

While Neilson's expectations are high for the rest of the season, he compared this year's team with the '04 National Championship team. "What is the same is that we have so much depth. It was the lack of experience in practice that the second team didn't have in 2004. This year, our first team and our second team have so much talent and experience that we can split up the teams and really compete. Our lack of parity was our Achilles heel last year, but this year's players 1-14 are excellent."

Playing volleyball was never a dream come true for Neilson; "It is just something that I put my mind to and something that happened. I had goals to come play volleyball at BYU, but I guess it wasn't a real 'dream,' but it has been everything I hoped it would be."

With the Cougars now ranked No. 1 in the country his expectations may be in the distant future.

Neilson will graduate in April with a B.S. in Neuroscience and has plans to study all summer for the MCAT and go to medical school.

Since playing college volleyball wasn't a dream come true for him, but just a goal, he did explain that his biggest dream is to be a good father and husband.

Neilson certainly is the jack-of-all-trades and will be sorely missed at the conclusion of the season. Even though he won't be out on the volleyball court winning match after match, he will continue to excel and come out victorious in the medical field.

Tags: Feature