Heather Nelson begins her 12th season at the helm of the Southeast Missouri State soccer program. Since building the Southeast program from scratch in 1999, Nelson has reeled off nine winning seasons and has compiled a 110-63-24 record at Southeast. She has led the Southeast soccer team to three OVC regular season championships in 2001, 2002, and 2007. The Redhawks captured OVC Tournament titles in 2006 and 2007, which led to two NCAA Women's Soccer Cup appearances.
After a modest record in the program's first year, Nelson won 10 games in year two before leading the Redhawks to a pair of OVC regular-season championships in 2001 and 2002. Her squads finished undefeated in conference play both of those seasons.
In 2001, Nelson's team broke into the spotlight as they finished the year 16-2 overall and 5-0 in the OVC, posting an .889 winning percentage on the season, the highest in school history. Despite claiming the program's first conference title, Southeast ultimately fell to Eastern Illinois, 1-0, in the OVC Tournament finals.
The team finished the season ranked first in the country in goals allowed average (0.44) and shutout percentage (.72), while only allowing eight goals in 18 total games. Meanwhile, Southeast also ranked 10th nationally with 2.67 points per game. The team set OVC records for wins in a season (16) and goals allowed in conference play (zero).
Southeast repeated as OVC regular season champions the following year, finishing the 2002 season with an overall record of 14-5-1 and a 6-0-0 record in OVC play. The Redhawks led the OVC in shots, goals allowed, goals against, fouls and shutouts.
Nine players were named to All-OVC teams. Valerie Henderson was named OVC Player of the Year and Jenny Hamilton was named OVC Defender of the Year for the second straight year. However, Southeast fell just shy of an NCAA Tournament berth for the second straight year to Eastern Illinois, falling 3-2 in a heartbreaking overtime shootout.
After a second loss to the Panthers, it would be another four years before the Redhawks found themselves in position to earn a spot in the 64-team NCAA Tournament field.
Coming off a fourth-place finish in 2006 with a 4-3-2 league record, the Redhawks defeated Austin Peay, 3-0, at home in an OVC Tournament play-in game before advancing to the tournament semifinals in Birmingham, Ala. Against No. 1 Samford on its home field, Southeast defeated the regular-season champions, 3-2, in a second overtime period. Two days later, the Redhawks shut out Morehead State, 2-0, in the title game to secure the program's first NCAA Tournament berth.
Southeast drew nationally-ranked Illinois in the opening round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament. The Redhawks traveled to St. Louis, Mo., for the first round match and stifled the Illini offense for much of the first period. However, after a thunderstorm delay that lasted over an hour and a half, the momentum turned to Illinois, which went on to defeat Southeast, 2-0.
In 2007, building upon their experience in the 2006 tournament, the Redhawks returned to postseason play against the Missouri Tigers. Playing at the Tigers' home field in Columbia, Mo., Nelson's Redhawks made history in the 43rd minute when Courtney Alexander scored the program's first goal in a NCAA Tournament on a perfect pass from Vanessa Hart. The goal tied the game at, 1-1, before Missouri claimed a shootout victory following two overtime periods.
Nelson earned her third OVC Coach of the Year honor in 2007, marking the most of any women's soccer coach in conference history. The honor was just one of four individual conference honors for the Redhawks, who swept the OVC postseason awards that year.
In her 10 seasons at Southeast, Nelson has coached three OVC Players of the Year, four OVC Defensive Players of the Year and one OVC Freshman of the Year. Additionally, 56 Redhawks have earned OVC First-Team, Second-Team, Third-Team, Honorable Mention or All-Newcomer postseason accolades under Nelson since 1999.
Nelson's Redhawks have performed extremely well in the classroom as well. Her student-athletes have earned CoSIDA/ESPN The Magazine Academic All- District VII honors on five occasions. She has also coached 18 OVC Medal of Honor recipients. The Medal of Honor awards are given to student-athletes who earn the highest grade point average in the conference in each conference-sponsored sport.
Prior to building the Redhawks soccer program, Nelson coached at Florida State from 1995-98, helping set the foundation for the Seminoles in the very competitive Atlantic Coast Conference. Her 1996 squad finished an impressive 12-7-1, and was led by Kelley Poole, who served two years as Nelson's assistant at Southeast before moving on to start the soccer program at Austin Peay. Nelson's teams also achieved success off the field, as the 1996 and 1997 squads had ACC's second-highest grade point average.
Nelson coached the 1986 age group Missouri Olympic Development Program (ODP) team to the Midwest Region II Championship in 2003 and represented Region II at the 2004 ODP National Championship in Las Vegas, Nev. She also coached the 1988 age group Missouri ODP team and served as co-head coach for Missouri's Olympic Development Program, while serving as a member of the Region II coaching staff.
A former member of Canada's national team pool, Nelson was a four-year starter at the University of Saskatchewan. Earning her degree in physical education in 1992, she went on to get her "B" license and coaching diploma from the National Coaching Institute at the University of Victoria. Upon receiving her diploma in 1993, Nelson held the distinction of being one of only five Canadian female coaches qualified to coach at the national team level. In 2003, Nelson received her master's degree from the University of Victoria.
Nelson and her husband, Paul, a former professional soccer player and current Redhawks associate head coach, have three daughters, Jordan (12), Taylor (8) and Justi (4) and one son, Mitchell "Chase" (2).