When head coach Jolene Nagel was looking at her roster for the 2018 season, she saw a hole.

After losing three starting seniors to graduation and returning just six upperclassmen—two of which were out of commission with injuries last season—Nagel’s squad desperately needed a direct injection of talented experience to bring a young group of Blue Devils together.

Enter Andie Shelton, Duke’s first graduate transfer in program history.

‘That’s my daughter’

Nagel first heard of the Stockton, Calif., native not through recruiting but from Shelton’s father, Tiger. A club coach with over 36 years of experience at all levels, Tiger Shelton had been in contact with Nagel since 1999 after a former player enrolled on Duke’s roster. And after a business-as-usual phone call, the prospect of Andie making her way to Durham came up.

“He was helping one of his former players look for an opportunity and we just got to talking and that’s how it came up,” Nagel said. “He called me about an outside hitter and I said ‘we could probably use an outside hitter,’ and then it would be awesome to get a fifth year player somehow and get that experience. Somebody who has one year of eligibility who can get their masters here at Duke, who can help us get a little more experience on our roster. He said, ‘that’s my daughter.’”

Winding up at Duke was never necessarily in the cards for Andie Shelton.

Like most of her classmates in high school, Shelton opted to attend Pacific, a mere 15-minute drive from her house and nestled  in the city where she grew up. She thrived as a Tiger, earning all-freshman team honors in 2014 and ending her fourth year as one of only a pair of two-position players in the West Coast Conference.

Shelton, who redshirted her sophomore season, then had the opportunity to take her final year of eligibility elsewhere and leave her hometown of over 20 years behind.

“I was thinking I needed a little bit of a change in my life,” Shelton said. “I wasn’t planning on it originally. Pacific was 15 minutes from my house. I didn’t live at home but I might as well have been at home all the time. When I first was looking for schools I wasn’t ready to leave home, but now I was more interested in the idea and then Duke kind of came about and I was like, ‘it’s Duke,’ it’s not really a hard question as to whether or not it’s a great school or a great program or a great place to be.”

After satisfying her enrollment requirements and finally getting the chance to talk with Nagel after waiving her final year at Pacific, Shelton embarked on a 2,700 mile cross-country road trip to establish her new home in Durham.

From the outset, the transition wasn’t easy for the graduate transfer. 

Getting acquainted in a completely different part of the country is one thing, but also trying to integrate into a completely new team on a new campus while also truly living on her own for the first time only added to Shelton’s challenges.

Add all of that on top of her job in helping five incoming freshmen mesh with a returning core and Shelton found herself in a rare position.

“It’s weird,” Shelton said. “I like to call myself the 22-year-old freshman, because that’s kind of what it’s like. I feel like I’m a freshman again, but I’m also older than everyone else on the team. I’m like the grandma on the team, but I’m also so new to everything. It has been a very strange experience, but it has also been very fun. Not often do you get to, for one year experience something brand new.”

For the first time in her life, she had to manage all of her own living arrangements. From bills to groceries, she was truly on her own. To make matters worse, disaster struck with leaks in her apartment courtesy of North Carolina’s rainy summers, forcing the newly minted Durhamite to scramble to recover in her new home. All of this occurring in the backdrop of leaving her friends and family behind in a completely new part of the country.

Luckily for Shelton, the team came to her rescue.

The coaching staff swooped to her aid in moving her furniture out of her apartment, saving her from an early disaster in her living situation. After arriving in the summer, her teammates provided a proxy family, integrating her quickly into the team culture and staying patient with the new Blue Devil’s questions.

“I’ve grown a lot as a person,” Shelton said. “I can’t just call mom and go, ‘Hey mom, can you help me buy groceries?’ I’ve had to do it all on my own, pay my bills on my own, and that part has been good. The team and the school and everything has been really awesome. It has kind of helped me not think of how far away I am.”

Setting the tone

If Shelton had any worries about making the transition to Duke, she left those doubts behind once she stepped into Cameron Indoor Stadium for the first time in late August.

A combination outside hitter and setter, Shelton has been a swiss army knife for Duke, leading the team in assists and service aces while also ranking fourth in kills. Shelton’s versatility has paid dividends—in Duke’s win over South Florida where Shelton recorded 27 assists, 11 kills and 15 digs, marking the Blue Devils’ first triple-double since 2006.

The level of consistency Shelton adds to a Duke squad that regularly starts three freshmen has also been invaluable, helping the Blue Devils avoid some of the mistakes younger teams are often susceptible to making.

“This kid is a real coach’s kid,” Nagel said. “She has been around the sport forever so she understands a lot about it…. Not only do we have somebody who has already gotten their undergraduate degree, but somebody who has a lot of experience on the court and the volleyball IQ that goes along with it.”

Although the WCC is far from an easy conference—top-ranked Brigham Young is part of the conference—a big adjustment for Shelton was the sheer size and support of a Power 5 organization like the ACC. But yet again, Shelton took it in stride. Just over a month ago, she tabbed ACC Player of the Week honors, establishing herself as one of the best players not only at Duke, but in the conference.

For Nagel, the question isn’t just how to best use Shelton, but also whether there will be more Andie Shelton-types to come through Durham in the near future. In her almost two-decade tenure at Duke, Nagel had never before recruited a graduate transfer. 

With generally full rosters and consistent recruiting classes of three to four incoming freshmen, the winningest coach in Duke volleyball history simply hasn’t had the space or the need to fill gaps in the roster with fifth or sixth-year players.

Still, she’s open to the idea.

“I think it would be wonderful if we could get more [graduate transfers], but I don’t know if we’ll be able to do that,” Nagel said. “It depends on what our needs are and if we have any means to help them.”

If her experience with Andie Shelton is anything to go by, a 22-year-old freshman is a safe bet.