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A whole bunch of Nelsons: Family will have a prominent presence in Jimtown Regional

WHEATFIELD -- If you're looking for most anyone in the Nelson family Saturday, you'll need to head to Jimtown High School.

Just about the whole gang will be there for the Class 3A regional involving Kankakee Valley, with head coach Doug Nelson, freshman coach Merel Nelson, his dad, and volunteer assistant Kale Nelson, his son, on one side, and Griffith, with Panthers junior Jaecy Nelson, the daughter of Dustin, Doug's brother, and Kari Nelson. The support group will also include Doug's other son, Nate Ramian, and his wife Joy.

"When the brackets came out, the first thing we were looking to see was what bracket are we both on," Doug said.

The teams are opposite sides of the bracket so there's plenty of heavy lifting standing in the way of an all-Nelson championship, but at the very least, they'll be there for the semifinals, cheering each other on, as it's been in the family forever.

"It's fun," Doug said. "Thanksgiving, Christmas, we tell stories. Somebody's always got a trophy story. We didn't have the conversations (in 2020). We were all cheering Jaecy on (in track and field) a couple years ago. We go see (Kari and Dustin's oldest son) Maverik run a cross country meet. It's always something. I'll text mom, where you at? I'll look up and oh, you're right over there."

Merel, 71, the proud patriarch, first got into coaching while he was in college, doing youth baseball and football at the urging of some friends in Portage and South Haven in the late 1960s. While he's never done it for a living -- Merel's best known for his time as the operations coordinator at Valparaiso University -- he triggered an interest in Doug and Dustin.

"You can write a timeline," said Merel, who has helped out Doug at his many girls basketball and baseball coaching stops in Lake, Porter, La Porte and Jasper counties. "I'm the luckiest guy in the world. I get to be with my sons, my grandson, watching my granddaughter and grandsons. It's neat. Grandma and I will go somewhere, go see a cross country meet, and look, oh, there's Doug, there's Nate. I thank God every day for all three of our sons, the fact our kids have all done something creative. Everyone of them is involved in sports, other than my wife. Debbie's the queen bee."

Doug has been a head coach at Marquette (girls basketball), Hanover Central (baseball and girls basketball), River Forest (girls basketball) and Calumet (golf) before coming to KV, where he does both sports. He's also had assistant stints at Portage (girls basketball with Renee Turpa), where he spent Kale's senior year as a baseball assistant, Wheeler (boys basketball with Tom Johnson) and Morgan Township (boys basketball with Dustin).

"My goal is to one day teach, coach and live in the same county," Doug said. "At one point, I taught in Gary, coached at Marquette and lived in Portage. That was insane. (Golf) is the job. I know why those guys do that forever. I've been around a little bit. Everywhere you go is different. I think (dad's) been with me for all of them, even when I was at Marquette. It just makes it extra special whenever your family is around. Just like he did at Valpo, (dad)'ll just take care of things so we don't have to worry about them, behind the scenes, setting up camera, fixing a tripod. He's just awesome at that, along with helping younger people. Those are the kind of people you have to have around -- other than the one timeout."

The one timeout?

"He sits behind us," Doug said. "I tell him to get on the bench, but he likes it up there. He'll come up and tell me we have this many timeouts, which is wrong half the time. It happened on Saturday (against Knox). They're out of timeouts, they go and call a timeout. Dad, they don't have a timeout, right?"

Merel contends he was provided incorrect information.

"I'm not going to tell you where it came from," he said. "At least it was their timeout, not ours."

All's well that ended well as KV pulled off an improbable, double-digit rally to win.

"Toward the end of the game, I wanted to find out who their weaker free throw shooters were, and (Kale) knew," Doug said.

All the while, Nate is conversing with the rest of the family at Griffith, where the Panthers didn't have nearly as much drama in winning.

"Debbie was there," Merel said. "Nate was talking to Dustin and was yelling stuff down to me the whole time. Nate was saying, it doesn't look good, we're down by 14; oh, we're down by 10; the next thing, he's yelling is, we're down by four. It was such a thrill."

Dustin had coached Griffith the last five years, including the last two with his daughter, but left coaching this school year after taking an admnistrative position in Michigan City. Kari and Joy, who are both VU Athletics Hall of Famers in softball, also helped out during his coaching stint with the Panthers.

"They asked (Dusty and Kari) to cut the nets," Merel said.

Dustin coached five years at Washington Township (2001-5), winning two sectionals and the school's only girls basketball regional in 2003. He spent the next two years at Morgan Township, guiding the boys to a sectional title in 2007.

"We've done a lot of stuff together," Merel said. "Something I'm proud of with both my sons who coached, if you're not as good, they're going to make you better. I've got little kids who will probably never play a minute of varsity, but they're out there having a good time. I don't know everything they know, but I know the basics, what he wants to run. To be honest, I don't care if we win a ball game, I just want them to be better."

'Semi retired' from VU, Merel was brought back this week to help with football for the spring. He spends the morning there before heading to KV. He won't be coaching with Doug in baseball, but he'll be around, working as the scorekeeper.

"My wife enjoys it the most. It gets me out of house," he said. "I put in a lot of miles. I have to buy a car every season."

COVID hasn't resulted in many positives, but one of indirect benefits of it was having Kale taking his college classes remotely, meaning he's home and able to be involved at KV.

"This is one of my favorite years," Merel said. "With COVID, Kale's doing virtual, Doug allows me to be around, and the administration here is nice enough to let me hang out."

Like the others, Kale's got the sports gene, spending his summer coordinating baseball tournaments at college campuses around the Midwest. Nate has also been an assistant baseball and girls basketball coach at Portage the last four years.

"Grandpa's just always been around, supporting us in the stands at all the different sporting events," Kale said. "At first, going into it, I didn't know what to expect. I didn't realize it would be as fun as it turned out to be. We coach the 'C' team, they won their tournament, we got to win the sectional all together. It was like the perfect story line."

Debbie will stay back home with Dustin and Kari's other kids (Maverik, Jayden and Jonah) during the day, but if KV and Griffith both end up in the championship, who knows about Saturday night.

"If that was to happen, that would be a great problem to have," Doug said. "We're going to go give 'em heck and see what happens."

Doug Nelson, center, is the girls basketball coach at Kankakee Valley. His staff includes his dad, Merel (left), and son, Kale. The Kougars play in Saturday's Class 3A Jimtown Regional, where the other side of the bracket includes Griffith, whose roster includes Doug's niece Jaecy. Prior to this season, Doug's brother Dustin coached Griffith the last five years.

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