As a senior, Nelson was All-PAC in 4 sportsMay 12, 2020
BY COREY STOLZENBACH
Jay Nelson grew up with a lot of things in hand. He held a baseball mitt, a basketball, a football and a golf club as a youngster. Suffice to say, athletics were — and continue to remain — a big deal in his family.
His grandma, Ruth Elliott, starred in basketball at Huntingburg in the 1920s before the Indiana High School Basketball Association disbanded girls basketball for many decades. Elliott posted a 34-point performance as a senior in 1926, and scored 243 points during her team’s first 12 games of the season. She was posthumously inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 2005.
“Her nickname was ‘Little Dribble’ back when she played for the Huntingburg Bearcats (before they became the Hunters),” Nelson said. “They called her ‘Little Dribble’ because she was just ahead of everybody as far as dribbling and handling the basketball with both hands, and my mom (Barb Nelson) always said that she was just a great shooter and could put them in from anywhere.”
Jay’s grandma didn’t always travel to his away games, but watched every home game of his at Southridge. The 1979 graduate remembers his grandma always giving him a hard time on free throws. She emphasized they were free for a reason — that nobody was guarding him and he should be able to make them all the time.
“If I had a bad free throw shooting game, I did expect a call from my grandma when I got home after the game,” he said.
Barb herself was a huge influence in Jay’s athletic aspirations. She couldn’t play high school basketball, but excelled at the game against boys whenever she could play in other ways, such as at recess. Jay told The Herald that his grandma said Barb was much better than she was.
Jay told of Barb once playing catch before one of her son’s Pee Wee baseball games. The ball accidentally got her in the eye, giving her a black eye, but she still persisted and continued with her son’s warmups.
“That’s one tough loving mom,” Jay said.
However, an injury he suffered in football also altered his athletic path. He was a quarterback his seventh and eighth grade years and was supposed to hold the same position on the freshmen team. However, Jay had a staph infection in his blood the summer before his freshman year of high school.
It settled in his hip, and he still has deterioration from that. But he remembers being in the hospital for three to four weeks. He had to go to Shriners Hospitals for Children in St. Louis. His weight dropped, and he was not medically cleared to play football by doctors.
That allowed him to focus more on his tennis game, and had it not been for that injury in football, Jay might not have accomplished everything he did on the tennis court. Southridge voted him team MVP his junior and senior years, and he also played tennis at what is now the University of Southern Indiana.
Jay was named to the Indiana All-State third team as a senior after playing No. 1 singles for the Raiders. He played No. 1 doubles as a sophomore, and No. 3 singles as a junior — going a perfect 24-0 in an era before individual state championships.
That doesn’t mean, though, that Jay necessarily would’ve been a state champion if individuals could win one back then.
“If you would’ve asked me then, when I was a senior, I would’ve probably said there might be a chance,” he said. “Now that I’m much more educated on the talent that was out there and what I saw once I got to college and then the type of caliber of players that were out there, I would say absolutely not.
“That would not have happened just because I never got to play the competition that was out there.” he continued. “I never really played against some of the bigger Evansville schools, Terre Haute schools, Indianapolis schools. I got to play those guys when I actually was in college, and I could definitely see the difference in the caliber of play.”
Jay earned first team All-Pocket Athletic Conference honors his senior year in tennis at Southridge, which would be a recurring theme.
He averaged 14 points a game in the regular season for Gary Duncan’s Raiders on the basketball court when he was a senior. Fellow senior Jeff Williams averaged 13.8. The Raiders finished the regular season at 15-5, winning 10 out of their last 11 games.
Jay thought Duncan was the best coach and motivator he ever had.
“Everybody on our team in 1979 would’ve run through a wall for Gary Duncan,” he said. “We weren’t the most talented squad. We didn’t have anybody on our team over 6’3", but we just worked our tails off.”
Oftentimes, teams that win sectional championships, and potentially more than that, may be pushed to the brink in the sectional. That was exactly the case in the 1979 championship when Southridge locked horns with Dubois. But just like a batter in baseball who is due when he is going through a slump at the plate, so was Williams that night.
Williams was 1 for 9 at the free throw line prior to stepping to the charity stripe with five seconds remaining. He nailed both of them, and the Raiders escaped with a 46-44 sectional championship.
“Anytime that I see Jeff and/or some of the other teammates, whether it’s Brett Bardwell or Larry Altstadt or Rick Kamman, we still kind of laugh about it,” Jay said. “We all knew out on the floor that he’s missed like eight in a row. We probably all thought down deep that that probably was a smart decision that Dubois chose to foul him again. But we had a lot of confidence in Jeff, and we knew that he’d hit them. He hits them in practice, and I do remember everybody kind of taking their turns and going up to him while he was waiting for the ball, ‘Hey man. You can do it. You can do it. You do this all the time in practice. You can hit them. Just hit these things.’”
The Raiders got to the regional championship game that year, where they went up against Steve Bouchie and host Washington inside the Hatchet House. Bouchie was named Indiana’s Mr. Basketball that year, and it showed that evening against the Raiders when he dropped 39 points on them. Washington ran by Southridge with a 70-51 score, and the Raiders would have to wait until 1985 to celebrate a regional crown.
Duncan told The Herald, according to the March 12, 1979 edition, that the Raiders thought they needed to force turnovers, which they did, 16 times, but still couldn’t capitalize.
Jay earned first team All-Sectional, first team All-Regional and first team All-PAC in his final year at Southridge.
Things changed, though, when spring rolled around. Jay was free to concentrate just on tennis in the fall, and just on basketball during the winter, but he decided he wanted to play both golf and baseball in the spring. He fell in love with golf before he got into high school, and gave up baseball.
Jay missed the latter, though, and requested to compete in both when he was a sophomore. He didn’t want to lose his loyalty to golf. Southridge carefully considered, and wanted to wait a year before giving him the green light because they thought he was too young to play two sports at once. Jay was a low-B student in academics, and Southridge wanted to make sure he kept up his academics before playing two sports at once.
Golf matches would take priority over baseball games for him. A game or a match would always outweigh a practice. If baseball and golf were both having practices, he would rotate. Jay would go to golf practice one day and baseball practice the next day if both teams were practicing simultaneously.
He dealt with multiple coaching changes for Southridge golf when he was in high school, but that never deterred him. Jay was either the No. 1 or No. 2 golfer all four years in high school. He shot a 76 to be named the top medalist at a PAC tournament at Christmas Lake in 1979.
Jay believed consistency to be his biggest strength when it came to his performance on the golf course.
“Everybody would just preach, ‘Consistency, consistency,’” he said. “They would always tell me, ‘It doesn’t matter how you hit the ball. It just matters — can you repeat that swing? If you can repeat that swing, keep the ball straight, the game will become very easy for you.’”
His performance on the golf course earned him another first team All-PAC honor.
Jay broke out in a big way on the baseball diamond, and though golf matches took priority and he missed some games, it did not hamper his performance. He had a quickness about him that allowed him to cause havoc on the basepaths and swipe bases. Jay received the green light from Coach Gary Meyer to run when he wished. He missed more baseball games as a junior than as a senior, and he was always looking to swipe bags when he could in 1979.
He also batted .352 at the plate his senior season.
“I just had a great eye,” Jay said. “I got on by a lot of walks, and I made sure that I got my pitch. For some reason, I saw the ball pretty well, and I knew right away if it was a fastball or curveball, and that was probably one of my strengths. I was definitely a spray hitter. I did not swing for power.”
Jay pointed out that most baseball players can’t play golf, and vice versa. The swings and timing are both completely different. It was difficult for him to turn that on and off, and to make adjustments so the wrong swing wasn’t in the other sport. He remembers playing a golf match and then playing the final four or five innings of a baseball game in the same day.
He collected one final first team All-PAC honor his senior year — in baseball. Jay credited his coaches, and also his teammates for being so understanding and working with his schedule in both sports.
It’s been more than 40 years since it happened, but being named first-team all-conference in four sports is the accomplishment he is proudest of.
Jay didn’t become a teacher, but has given group and private tennis lessons to players in Dubois County, and also had students from Pike Central, Wood Memorial and Barr-Reeve. He always dreamt of being a coach, and would have up to 87 students a week. It was his way for giving back to the game. Jay stopped charging the last few years he coached. He never got lessons himself growing up because he couldn’t afford them. Jay also works for Stauffer Glove & Safety now after many years at Kimball International and a handful at Jasper Engines & Transmissions.
He and his wife, Belinda, helped their children, son Casey and daughter Natasha, with their sports when they were athletes. Natasha was a diver and cheerleader, and ran track at Jasper. Jay thinks Casey must’ve gotten his genes, because he played football, baseball, basketball and golf, and ran track during his time with the Wildcats.
Jay himself, ever the competitor, makes sure he can still engage in some of the sports he played in high school, though obviously in a different capacity.
“Thankfully, the tennis court is not too big, so I can still hold my own,” he said. “Golf game, I probably still play to a six or seven handicap. I’m a lot smarter now. I just can’t hit the ball as far. That’s for sure, but I still enjoy both. I’ve still got a basketball goal here in our driveway to enjoy, just shoot around, and I got the benefit of watching both my kids.”
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