Senior middle Shelby Nelson has served as a leader for the Hannibal volleyball team on and off the court.

Shelby Nelson could hardly believe her eyes.

Prior to the Hannibal volleyball team’s sweep over Boonville on Thursday to secure a perfect record in the North Central Missouri Conference, there was a surprise awaiting the lone Lady Pirate senior.

Principal Ted Sampson, head coach Kelsey Whitley and assistant coaches Audra Hull and Deanine Haynes were wearing shirts with a caricature of Nelson’s face to recognize the team captain on the final home match of her career.

"I started dying,” Nelson said. "I had no idea they had that planned. It was really sweet knowing they cared that much.”

The moment turned into a photo opportunity in Korf Gymnasium, where with Nelson on board Hannibal has never lost an NCMC match. The Lady Pirates have won the conference title every year she’s been on the team.

The middle, who plays all the way around the court, led with four blocks and 11 digs to improve Hannibal’s record to 18-9 entering postseason.

Whitley mentioned the shirts were meant to put the spotlight on her senior.

“We’ve always talked about how Nelson is very humble, always has been,” the coach said. “She gets very embarrassed when she is the center of attention. So we were like, ‘We need to get shirts made, something that says Nelson Night.’ Her face was priceless. She was mortified. But she deserves it. She deserved every bit of it.”

What makes Nelson such a beloved member of the team has as much to do with her personality as her performance on the court, which includes tying the school record with 10 aces in a match Aug. 31 against Bowling Green.

Whether it’s offering encouragement, telling a joke or owning up to her own mistakes, the senior has set an example teammates want to follow, according to junior Claire Thomas.

“She brings a lot to the table,” said Thomas, a fellow middle who led with eight kills Thursday and also drew the caricature of Nelson. “Everyone on our team, she’s the person that everybody feels at any stage that they’re at, they can come up to her. She’s very open and she’ll talk with you. Everybody loves Nelson.”

Thomas mentioned Nelson is the type of senior she wants to become next season.

“Even when she does a mistake, she’ll go, ‘My bad,’ and she is trying,” the junior said. “She’s always trying to get the next ball. This year, her hits have been absolutely amazing. She’s a person I look up to always.”

Nelson was touched by the kind words but still found a way to deflect the praise.

“I think Claire will be me and beyond,” Nelson said. “All the girls are super sweet and I think they’re all going to be far better seniors than I was, so it’s really cool that they do look up to me because I look up to them as well.”

There remains some unfinished business for Nelson and the Lady Pirates this season. Hannibal squares off against Battle in the first round of the Class 4 District 8 Tournament on Monday.

One of Nelson’s favorite memories playing in high school was defeating Troy Buchanan for a win in the first round of districts in 2014.

Hannibal hasn’t achieved the feat since.

A win Monday night would provide proof the senior is leaving the program destined for more success in the years to come.

“Especially being the only senior, it’s nice knowing the team is going to be left in a great position and they’re more than capable of coming out and winning conference next year,” Nelson said.

“But we’re not finished yet this year.”

With the end of her career inevitably closing in, Nelson finds herself looking back at the memories she’s shared with teammates both on and off the court.

“I’ll probably cry later,” she admitted. “It’s bittersweet knowing I’m going on to college and it’s sad leaving all my teammates and I love them all so dearly and I’ll miss them all. I’ll miss playing in Korf Gym, I’ll miss it. But it will be OK.”