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Midwestern girl spices up UCLA, Pac-10 volleyball
By Patricia Babcock McGraw | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 12/1/2007 12:22 AM

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Her long, golden blond hair is very Californian. And so is her volleyball mojo.

Nellie Spicer seems to fit right in on the sun-splashed West Coast, where volleyball is king.

But inevitably, the truth comes out. And it draws quite a reaction.

"People out here always act so surprised when I tell them I'm from Chicago," said Spicer, a Barrington High School product.

Yes, it must seem almost blasphemous to the natives. A player who will be considered one of the best ever at a school that is synonymous with West Coast volleyball dominance hails from the Midwest, where basketball and football are king and volleyball is often treated like a commoner.

And yet, the 20-year-old Spicer is well on her way to such acclaim at UCLA, which is ranked 10th nationally and begins its run through the NCAA Tournament this weekend.

The junior setter, who averages 12.8 assists per game, was recently named a first-team all-Pac 10 selection for the third consecutive season.

If she goes 4-for-4 next year, she'll join the most elite of company. Only two Bruins -- legends Natalie Williams and Elaine Youngs -- are four-time all-conference first-teamers. And this is a program that since 1972 has won 10 Pac-10 titles, been to 22 Final Fours and claimed six national championships.

Clearly, the four-timers don't come around all that often.

"When Nellie finishes her career, she'll rank with the best we've ever had here at UCLA," said coach Andy Banachowski, who would know.

Banachowski, a 41-year institution, has built quite a dynasty as the program's only head coach.

He has seen and coached some of the best over his four decades in the business and says that what separates Spicer from other elite setters is her athleticism.

Even Misty May, an icon on the beach tour who was a superstar setter at Long Beach State in the late 1990s, isn't quite on Spicer's level.

"Both Misty and Nellie are great competitors and both have great abilities," Banachowski said. "But Nellie has better quickness, which you don't always get at the setter position. She's just such a tremendous athlete."

But while that might set Spicer apart in the world of college volleyball, it barely allows her to make a dent in her own family.

Inquiring minds want to know exactly what kind of water is being pumped into the Spicer household in Barrington.

Nellie is one of seven children born to Barb and Thomas Spicer. Amazingly, each one of the Spicer children has played sports at the collegiate level.

"In high school, we all played sports pretty seriously and were all involved in a lot of things," said Spicer, who graduated from Barrington in 2005. "I don't know how my parents did it, getting everyone where they needed to be, and getting to everyone's games. I have no idea how they're still normal people after all of that."

Maybe pride dulled the insanity.

Two of Nellie's siblings also got Division I volleyball scholarships. Betsy, now 28 and the mother of the family's first grandchild, was a star at Illinois. Annie, 24, played at Virginia Tech.

Brother Charlie, Nellie's twin and the youngest of the children by six minutes, plays volleyball at Lindenwood University in Missouri.

Sister Megan, who is 30 and the oldest of the Spicer children, ran cross country at Eastern Illinois. Tommy, 28, played football at Augustana, while Matt, 22, played football at North Central.

"It's all about good genes, I guess," Spicer laughed. "I don't know, maybe our family just got lucky."

Or maybe the Spicers are simply performing in public the way they're used to performing at home -- in the backyard.

Nellie says that all seven siblings couldn't be closer. But when it comes to sports: watch out.

"We were always playing sports together as kids and it would always get really competitive," Spicer said. "Even now, it's still like that. Every Fourth of July, we go out in the yard and set up the volleyball net and all of us get this big grass tournament going. We'll start in the morning and go until it's too dark to see the ball. It gets pretty crazy, pretty competitive. It's aggressive. Sometimes I think we could use a referee.

"But we still have a lot of fun."

Spicer looks forward to every family reunion but says they don't happen nearly enough because of all the hectic schedules.

Because of volleyball, Spicer hasn't stepped foot in her house in 10 months. She's eager for her upcoming holiday break and then for a time when she'll be able to return to the Midwest for good.

"After I'm done (at UCLA), I think I'm going to stay out here and try to play beach (volleyball) for a while," Spicer said. "But I'm not sure it will be for very long.

"It was an absolute dream to come out here. It's beautiful 12 months a year. But it's almost too unrealistic. And I'm not into the whole Hollywood thing. It's just too much for me. I stay away from it.

"I'm really just a Midwestern girl."