She might be a quiet person but her presence on the court is as loud as rolling thunder.
BYU middle blocker Nina Puikkonen is a very polite, soft-spoken person with a humble way about her. The 6-3 junior from Murray, Utah, via Finnish roots doesn't have to talk up her game, because when you see her whiz one by the opposing teams blockers you will know she comes to play. Her actions speak louder than words.
"Nina is not one of your most vocal players, but she is very supportive and positive. She is so good but yet so humble," says BYU Head Women's Volleyball Coach Elaine Michaelis. "She is also the 'go-to' player when we need something we go to her."
Puikkonen (pronounced PWEE-koh-nehn), who was the unanimous selection as the inaugural Mountain West Conference Player of the Year last season, has consistently delivered for the Cougars, but she credits a lot to her coaches.
"Coach knows a lot about the game. She has been through every situation," says Puikkonen of Michaelis, who is second on volleyball's all-time win list with more than 850 victories. "She is so optimistic and in our losses she teaches us what we can learn - she leads by example."
Assistant Coach Stephanie Trane, who was a volleyball star at both Utah Valley State College and BYU, is pleased with the progress Puikkonen has made since she has been at BYU.
"This year her whole game has come together - she has the full package," says Trane.
Puikkonen gives Trane a lot of credit for helping her fine tune her game over the last three years.
"She has showed me a lot of detail as far as technique," says Puikkonen about Trane's individual coaching skills. "She has made me see the little parts of my game that go unnoticed."
Trane says Nina has made the most improvement because she does what she is told to do at the time. That ability to execute when asked has been the reason why Nina has become as good as she is in such a short period of time.
"Nina is one of the most coachable players in the program," says Trane.
Coach Michaelis, who has coached more than 1,000 matches and hundreds of athletes, agrees.
"It is great to have coachable players like Nina," says Michaelis. "She tries to understand and analyze the things we tell her."
Puikkonen has definitely been able to understand and analyze the defensive part of her game. Her Thor-like presence at the net has made opponents timid to hit the ball her way.
She currently leads the nation in blocking, averaging 1.87 blocks per game. During her freshman year she averaged 2.17 blocks per game, becoming the first player in five years to average more than two blocks a game. Her blocking average that year also led the nation and set a BYU record.
She averaged 1.85 blocks per game her sophomore year which ranked third in the nation and equaled BYU's second-highest single-season blocking average. Holding the Cougars' top two season averages, she is the career leader in blocking at BYU with 2.00 blocks per game.
Coming into this season she already ranked fifth on the BYU career blocking list. Her 88 blocks so far this season gives her 523 total blocks, which has already moved her into third place on the career list. As a junior, she is on track to become one of the most prolific blockers in BYU history, with a chance to pass up the all-time blocking leader Dylann Duncan (888), who played from 1985-1988.
Don't mistake Nina as just a defensive player. When she's not stuffing opponents she's sending lightning fast kills by them. The two-time All-American has a .362 hitting percentage this season and a .359 career mark (a percentage of .300 is considered excellent at the Division I college level).
This season she tied a career high in kills (25) during BYU's upset of second-ranked Long Beach State. During that same week Puikkonen attacked at a .400 hitting percentage and averaged 4.63 kills per game while leading the Cougars to wins over No. 1 Stanford, No. 2 Long Beach State and No. 20 Kansas State. The Cougars won the BYU Mizuno Classic Championship and Puikkonen ran away with the Mizuno Classic Most Valuable Player award. She was later named AVCA/Sports Imports National Player of the Week.
"Nina was very deserving," says Michaelis. "She really stepped it up against the best teams in the country."
Only one other Cougar has been recognized as the national player of the week. Former middle blocker Amy Steele Gant, who went on to play for the U.S. National Team, earned the previous award, Oct. 30-Nov. 5, 1996.
Puikkonen redshirted in 1997 during Gant's senior year at BYU. Puikkonen said she wasn't ready to play as a true freshman, but learned a lot from Gant and others.
"Being able to play against Amy Gant was very humbling," says Puikkonen. "I had three senior middles (including Gant) in front of me. I still considered myself a very raw player."
If she was a "raw player" three years ago then some might say she is a "well-done player" now. If you ask her though, she will humbly tell you she still has a long way to go. Her drive to always improve has shown in her volleyball skills and in her life.
"She not only leads on the court, but off the court," says Michaelis. "She has spoken at several firesides."
"She is one of the best all-around players we have ever had, and she is a great person on top of that which is a good combination," adds Trane.
Someone that is close to her both on and off the court is her younger sister, Karina, who won the starting job as the Cougar setter this year. She could take some credit for Nina's high hitting percentage but she never would. They have at least two things in common-sharp volleyball skills and humility. The Puikkonen sisters, who are also roommates, played one year together at Murray High School, but this is the first time they have played together as setter and hitter.
"It has been awesome," says Karina, who played middle blocker along with Nina in high school. "I missed her for three years, and it has been fun to get to know her again."
Karina also appreciates receiving guidance on the court from her veteran sister.
"In our rotation I stand right next to her so I always talk to her," says Karina. "I can tell her my frustrations and get advice from her."
Nina, or "Pooky" as some of the players refer to her, also enjoys her sister's company.
"It's a blast! She brings a good presence to the court," she says.
Trane said both Nina (6-3) and Karina (6-0) have the ability to play so high on the court that it gives BYU an offensive advantage.
"They can both jump and Nina has such a high reach," says Trane. "When Karina jump-sets to Nina it's very hard to defend."
Nina has led the Cougars in kills and blocks in all but two matches while helping BYU to a national ranking as high as 10th.
Nina's abilities have not only impressed the coaches and her sister, but they have impressed the rest of her teammates. When it came time to pick captains at the beginning of the season the team picked Nina and senior outside hitter Melissa Layton to lead them.
"She brings a quiet confidence," says Karina about her sister. "She is a natural leader."
"The players believe in her," adds Michaelis.