In life, few things are as important as family, but for Iowa softball player Emily Nichols, family has taken on a new shape, definition, and importance since she became a Hawkeye. Nichols grew up in Portland, Oregon a long way from Iowa City, Iowa. However, the 1,900 miles of distance, did not diminish her reliance on family.
From the beginning, Nichols' softball career was inspired by that of her older sister, Sarah. At seven-years-old, Emily began playing on a team with Sarah, and after a year, the sisters started playing on separate teams. Despite no longer being teammates, Sarah's influence was never lost on her younger sibling. While surgery ended Sarah's softball career after high school, the lessons that she imparted unto Emily stay with the Hawkeye slugger to this day. "My sister worked really hard all the time. She taught me to love the game, and she showed me that working hard would help us accomplish anything we wanted."
As Nichols grew, she played on some of Oregon's best high school and club softball teams. Her Westview High School squad went to four-straight state tournaments and her Sun Supply club team won the ASA National Championship in 2002. Nichols feels that the experience of competing against top-talent in ASA tournaments provided a vital training ground for her collegiate career. "Some of the players that we played (this year), I already knew or had played against. It really helped me prepare for college. Since I traveled a lot, I'm not as intimidated by the pitching. I know that I can change, based on the pitcher."
As a four-time All-State catcher in high school, Nichols was faced with the difficult decision of choosing the college where she would spend the next four years. While considering her options, Nichols knew that coaching would play an important role in her decision making process. The Iowa coaching staff had the characteristics that Nichols was looking for. Head coach Gail Blevins has been at Iowa for 18 seasons, and amassed over 1,000 wins in her career. Assistant coach Michelle Venturella has been at Iowa for three years, and during her playing career won a gold medal with Team USA at the Sydney Games in 2000. "I had heard a lot of great things about Coach Blevins and I knew how successful she was. Coach Venturella was also a big part of me coming here, because she was on the Olympic team. She's a hitting coach and a catching coach, and obviously, she knows what she is talking about."
While the Iowa coaching staff played a significant role in Nichols' decision to become a Hawkeye, the deciding factor was her future teammates. Immediately Nichols felt that one of the strengths of the Iowa softball program was its people. "When I came on my visit, the girls were so nice. People in the Midwest are really great. I loved the people, and I loved the chemistry of the team."
The chemistry that Nichols sensed her first time in Iowa City proved to be an invaluable tool in her transition to college, both as a softball player and as a student. "You can go to any upperclassman and they would help you out with anything. They helped me with dorm life, and teaching me just how to do things, and how things operated. What really helped me was knowing that my teammates did care."
As Nichols began adjusting to life as a college student, the rigors of juggling school and softball began to weigh on her. While the advice and guidance of her teammates was beneficial for Nichols, when she needed help the most, she turned directly to her sister. "The transition was a little shaky at first, but Sarah really helped me out this last year. Being far away from home, and not knowing what to do, she taught me how to manage my time; how to do both softball and school, but she also taught me that you need to be kind. She is a great example of what to do and how to treat people."
As one of three Hawkeyes from outside of the Midwest, the team's families have eased Nichols transition to playing so far from home, just as much as her teammates have. Along with second baseman Summer Downs and shortstop Stacy May, Nichols has regularly been adopted by her teammates' families. "Summer, Stacy, and I consider ourselves the orphans of the team, because we don't have our parents there. The parents and families of our teammates always make us feel like a part of their family, and it's really nice, because we go from family to family. It's great when you have familiar faces waiting for you when you come out of the locker room."
Nichols has faced the difficulties associated with her move to Iowa in stride and she showed her comfort with her new surroundings almost immediately. Just 30 games into her collegiate career, while splitting time at catcher and first base, Nichols set a new Iowa single-season homerun record. Despite her high expectations coming into the season, no one has been as surprised by her success as she is. "I knew I would come in and contribute some how, I just didn't know where or how much it would be," Nichols admits. "So it is a little surprising that I am contributing this much, but I'm really glad that I am. I just want to help the team out, and I want us all to be successful."
The transition from high school to college is one of the most difficult progressions one can experience, but with the help of her sister, her teammates, and some caring families, Emily Nichols has made the adjustment and has a college career full of softball, friends, and family ahead of her in Iowa City. "It's like we are a family, they have made me feel so comfortable here," Nichols said of her teammates, "and I know that my next three years are going to be wonderful."