Although he grew up playing baseball and soccer, Thomas Nelson found himself surrounded by opportunities to watch and play volleyball at a young age. Both of his parents played volleyball in adult leagues and tournaments around Oakland, California, and at the age of five, Thomas began to flip the scoreboard during their league matches. As he got older he was promoted to line judge, and by the time he was nine years old, Thomas was the main referee for the matches. During his parents’ grass doubles tournaments on the weekends, Thomas and his brother would pepper on the side.
When his older brother entered high school he started playing club volleyball, and Thomas, in sixth grade at the time, would always hang around his practices. The coaches let him join in if they were short on players, or Thomas would jump in to play King of the Court, a popular game where the winning side moves up to the King Side where they stay until they are knocked down.
Thomas was accustomed to being the underdog. He always played with kids one or two years older in soccer and volleyball, so he tended to be the smallest and weakest player on the team. He had to figure out ways to keep up with his teammates and opponents who had the extra year or two of physical development. In soccer he spent countless hours outside of practice working on his fitness and ball control skills. In volleyball he watched college and professional games to try and develop his volleyball IQ. ie Learning how to tool the block, disguise tips and roll shots, and read the hitters line of approach and shot selection.
“I think this mentality has taught me to never become complacent and realize that there are always ways to improve and take my game to the next level,” shares Thomas.
After his freshman year in high school, Thomas decided to join a club volleyball team. He began his career as a libero, but after growing ten inches between freshman and junior year of high school, Thomas moved to outside hitter for his high school team.
Even though he enjoyed playing volleyball, it was Thomas’ dream to play collegiate soccer. However, a couple of bad concussions during his junior year of high school resulted in the need to step away from the sport. In response, Thomas dedicated more time to getting better at volleyball and soon after he started receiving interest from college volleyball coaches.
During senior year Thomas played club at Pacific Rim Volleyball Academy with teammate Gage Worsley. As his opponent the previous two years, he knew Gage’s volleyball skills were top notch, but it wasn’t until he became his teammate, that he realized how much Gage elevated his teammates with the intangibles: 100% effort on the court regardless of whether it’s practice, a match or open gym, effectively communicating and directing traffic in the back row, and getting his teammates to play at their best without being too harsh. His teammates knew that Gage expected their best efforts. Gage was the libero for University of Hawaii when they won the 2021 Men’s National Championship. Today, Gage plays professionally in Bulgaria and runs a podcast called Out of System, which aims to promote men’s volleyball.
After high school Thomas continued his playing career at MIT, and took what he learned from Gage with him, and credits his influence to becoming a better leader for his team.
Early in his collegiate career, Thomas looked up to the upperclassman on the volleyball team. MIT is a very challenging academic school. On top of his school workload, Thomas spent an additional 25-40 hours per week at practice, games, the weight room, and recovery, so free time was very limited.
“The upperclassman really led by example as far as how to manage time and prioritize activities. They showed me that I did not have to choose just one to excel at and that it was possible to excel in the classroom, as well as on the court.”
Thomas was a 2-time All-American selection, and was selected as the United Volleyball Conference Defensive Player of the Year three times. He was the first player to be selected as defensive player more than twice in conference history.
“I primarily played libero at MIT but also had opportunities to play outside hitter. I started lifting and was able to increase my vertical to compete with the bigger players.”
Thomas was also selected to the USA Volleyball Youth National Training Team as a libero in 2016 and 2017. He received his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from MIT and graduated in May 2020. Today Thomas works at Google as a Product Design Engineer designing the hardware that goes in data centers to run Google’s products such as Youtube, Search, Maps, Gmail, Drive, Photos etc.
“I personally was super excited when I found out about Sportconx and the VLA because it meant I had another opportunity to play volleyball at a high level, especially since my senior college season was cut short due to COVID. I also find the league super cool because it is literally made up of so many players with different backgrounds. Some players played D1 volleyball, some played D3 or some others played club in college. Some have already gone overseas to play professionally and some have even been in the USA National Team gym at some point. It really doesn’t matter and everyone is just stoked to have the opportunity to compete at a high level here in the United States.”
Thomas adds “One of the great parts about volleyball is that there are so many places and ways to play. I play a lot of grass and beach volleyball as well as indoor. It’s super easy to get a good game going, especially on the beach where you only need 4 people.”
The San Francisco Sportconx will be competing at the JVA West Coast Cup in Long Beach May 28-29, 2022. You can watch the live stream or replay of every match at the Volleyball League of America Youtube page.