Nicoloff stays grounded during diamond comeback process

By: D. Scott Fritchen

About half an hour after Kansas State beat Morehead State 15-2 on a bright Saturday afternoon at Tointon Family Stadium, Josh Nicoloff stood in the carpeted hallway that separated the Kansas State coaches meeting room from the head coach’s office Pete Hughes. Nicoloff wore his purple No. 27 jersey and white striped pants, cleats and sunglasses sitting on the bill of his purple hat. On the right sleeve of his jersey was a white Powercat. On the left side was the Big 12 Conference logo.


Nicoloff, 23, was talking to a reporter about an excellent book he had read – “Getting to Neutral: How to Conquer Negativity and Thrive in a Chaotic World”, by the late great sports psychologist Trevor Moawad – when Hughes came out of his office and burst into the conversation.


Pointing to Nicoloff, Hughes told the reporter, “He’s a great boy. He’s a good boy.”


Then Hughes disappeared into his office.


“The ‘Getting to Neutral’ book is really, really good,” Nicoloff said. “It’s just about staying neutral. It’s about staying neutral through life’s ups and downs. Don’t go too high or too low. I try to find the positive in everything.”

 

Months and months ago, Nicoloff could have sulked. Who could blame him?

Here he is, a native of Ladera Ranch, Calif., and a Trinity League All-Star selection from Santa Margarita Catholic High School — the same school that produced Klay Thompson, Trayce Thompson and Carson Palmer — at the start of his third season at Columbia University of New York.

He was batting practice at Columbia that fateful day, shortly after 3 p.m. on March 11, 2020, when a coach came onto the field and called the team together. The coach informed the players that the Ivy League presidents had just canceled all spring track and field practices and competitions for the remainder of the college year due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Columbia had just returned to New York after a four-game series at Nebraska. Nicoloff had a team-leading .394 batting average with one home run and four RBIs through the first eight games of the season. He was playing his best baseball. In his three seasons at Columbia, he posted a .293/.348/.397 career cut line with 11 doubles, two triples, three home runs and 30 RBIs in 69 games with 57 starts.

Now everything has stopped.

“Just an immediate shock,” recalls Nicoloff. “Nobody knew what was going on with it. Obviously we had heard about COVID, but we didn’t know the impact it was going to have on our lives.”

Then in November 2020, Nicoloff discovered he had torn his right hip labrum, which required surgery. So he was operated. Three months later, during a routine examination, doctors discovered that he had also torn his left hip labrum. Two weeks after the surgery, Ivy League presidents voted to cancel the 2021 baseball season.

Over the next year, Nicoloff and his two best friends – Josh Solomon and Carson Matthews – pulled through their layoffs, injuries and surgeries. Solomon is still at Columbia and Matthews is currently with the Los Angeles Angels organization. Solomon tore his elbow and had Tommy John surgery. Matthews tore an anterior cruciate ligament attacking ground balls. The three best friends had done everything together for seven years. They endured a difficult year virtually at the same time. That’s when they each started reading “Getting to Neutral.” And that changed the situation.

The premise of the book? This neutral thinking replaces hard-wired negativity, the kind of defeatist mindset that is almost everyone’s default.

Precious things. And timely.

Don’t be too high or too low.

Nicoloff 22 SE

“We went from daily grinding and training to all while recovering from pretty intense surgeries,” Nicoloff said. “This whole process made us better players and better people. We learned so much about how to stay positive, how to build on the negatives and find the positives in every situation. Honestly, it shaped me who I am today.”

Columbia head coach Brett Boretti was a freshman on Davidson’s baseball team in 1990. It was Hughes’ senior season at Davidson. They were teammates. Boretti went on to have one of the best careers in Davidson history and was inducted into the Davidson Athletics Hall of Fame in January 2010. Following the cancellation of Columbia’s 2021 baseball season, Boretti phoned Hughes .

“Brett said, ‘He’s a guy for you. He’s your kind of guy,'” Hughes said. “He said, ‘I think he would be the best player in the Ivy League this year.’ I said, ‘That’s all I need to hear.'”

Nicoloff took a virtual tour of K-State through the magic of FaceTime.

“I remember thinking, ‘Dang, this place is amazing,'” Nicoloff said.

He found a baseball home for his senior season.

“It was a bit surreal to be back on a college campus playing college baseball, especially fall practice, since it had been since 2019 that I had experienced fall baseball practice” , said Nicoloff. “Honestly, it was so much fun. Throughout the recovery process and playing summer ball (for the Wisconsin Rapids Raptors in the prestigious Northwoods League) for a little while, you kind of forget how much the College baseball is fun with a team.

“You come here and you live here, and you meet so many new people, especially with our transfers and our freshmen, and it’s so much fun playing baseball in a school.”

A regular diet of K-State online classes allows Nicoloff and his teammate Justin Mitchell the opportunity to get a head start on their day. They usually spend the mornings practicing early batting off the tee and on the pitchers. Then they hit Jimmy John’s for lunch – Nicoloff estimates he eats the No. 7 Gourmet Smoked Ham Club (no tomato or mayo) at least six times a week – before starting the first preparations for training with the rest of their teammates.

“I like to think of it as progression, just letting go throughout the day and working on a few things here and there,” Nicoloff said. “Having that time to ourselves in the morning really allows us to isolate things to work on.”

His presence, along with his extra work, seems to be paying off for the Wildcats, 11-7, as they prepare to host the Air Force on Tuesday and Wednesday before kicking off the grueling Big 12 season with a three-game series at the TCU which starts on Friday.

“As far as being an older statesman and the way he goes about his business, if he wasn’t even part of our training, he’s been such an asset to our youngsters. guys,” Hughes said. “You do your thing, man. You have to do your job. With him, it’s morning work every day before our (team’s) early work, and it’s after practice stuff. He’s got his routine, and he’s serious about seeing how great he can be in this sport. What a phenomenal guy to be with our young guys. That’s how you do it. And he does it every day.

“We can talk about how the kid is cerebral all day, but he gets everyone lined up in that infield, knows the game and is always looking for analytical information. What a bonus.”

Nicoloff does some serious work in games – a .262 batting average (17 for 65) with a .538 slugging percentage and .385 on-base percentage, to go along with a team that ties four homers, six doubles, 14 RBI ( tied for second on the team) and 13 steps, a team high.

Nicoloff is currently riding a 12-game hitting streak.

On Sunday, Nicoloff hit a double to left center in the fourth inning against Morehead State. Then he hit a three-run shot — his fourth homer of the season — to give K-State a 7-5 lead late in the seventh. He went 2 for 2 with a home run, a double and three RBIs.

Afterwards, Nicoloff assessed his performance in a balanced and rather calm manner.

“It’s definitely a lot of fun,” Nicoloff said. “No matter how hard you work, sometimes you don’t get the results you want, but you know that if you keep going with the process, success will come. It’s a great feeling to see it pay off. C is just good to win.”

Some players may be up to the task, but Nicoloff, who went nearly two years without playing college baseball to now produce great plays at his new dorm, simply refuses to go too high or too low. He read a book on neutrality. He continues to live by this principle.

And now he is the author of his own captivating story.

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