By Larry Watts
How long did it take Melanie Nichols to be indoctrinated into the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry?
"That was the first thing I heard -- despise Michigan," the Buckeye freshman pitcher said with a laugh.
So when the final out was recorded in Ohio State's 5-3 softball victory over the Big Ten leaders April 28, Nichols was just a shade excited. It marked the Buckeyes' first win over their rival since 2003.
"I was so excited and just sprinted off the field," she says. "I didn't know what to say after that. For once in my life I was speechless."
Nichols' performance in the circle this spring certainly speaks for itself. The San Jacinto, Calif. native took a 10-game winning streak into postseason action. Her 21 wins (against only two losses) are tops for a freshman in Ohio State history and is tied for sixth-best overall.
Needless to say, Nichols has been the savior for a pitching staff that took a big blow when veteran Lindsey Bodeker went down with her second season-ending knee injury during the team's spring trip to Florida. They had already lost All-American Kim Reeder to graduation.
"I really didn't expect to be pitching this much when I came here, but the coaches thought I was going to," Nichols says. "I wasn't sure where I was going to fit in because we already had a good pitching staff with Lindsey and (senior) Megan Miller. I knew I was going to have to work to earn a spot.
"When Lindsey went down, I was very nervous because I knew I was going to have to step up as a freshman. I have grown very close to all these seniors, so I felt like I owed it to all of them."
A modest Nichols describes her first season as a series of "ups and downs." However, with only two losses, it's hard to imagine there have been many down moments.
She started out the season 7-0 before dropping a 3-0 decision to Central Florida and then chalked up four more wins before Illinois handed her a 3-2 setback on April 10. Since then, she has been on a roll. She has gone the distance 15 times, including four shutouts.
Logging 129 strikeouts in 164.2 innings, Nichols is regarded as a control pitcher and has allowed the Buckeye defense to do its job. She has only issued 30 walks.
"Every practice the pitchers work on hitting their spots because we know we have a good defense behind us," she says. "Having (senior) Sam Marder as my catcher has been wonderful because of her experience. She really knows the game and keeps me pumped up. If I miss a spot, she's going to be the first one to let me know and I enjoy that because it's great to have her push me and keep me in line."
The Californian had a long list of softball powerhouses chasing her before she narrowed down her visits to Long Beach State, Alabama, San Diego State and Louisiana State as well as Ohio State. But after trips to Long Beach State and Alabama, her recruiting visits stopped in Columbus.
"I felt as though the Ohio State campus was actually prettier than the first two schools I visited," she says. "The total environment with all the students and tradition were great. I wanted to be a true student. And, of course, the facilities, didn't hurt."
While she says leaving her family behind has been the hardest part of her adjustment, Nichols claims she doesn't fit into the mold of the typical California stereotype.
"I like the cold weather, not the hot," she says. "And I would rather be hiking or camping in the mountains than on a beach. I just loved it when I saw all the trees here when I visited Ohio State.
"There are so many girls from California on this team, so I felt at home here. With all the seniors, I was worried about fitting in at first but they have done a great job of making me feel like I was part of the family."
The right-hander was actually a catcher when she first started playing softball.
"From what I can remember, it wasn't my favorite position," she says. "My mom would tell me how I was always complaining about balls hitting me. And when I hit the 10-under division, we lost all of our pitchers, so the coaches decided to throw me out there."
A three-time conference MVP while playing at San Jacinto High School, Nichols says she finally started taking pitching seriously when she reached the 16-under division.
"That's probably when I had my breakout," she says. "I've had a pitching coach for the past six years back home and I realized I could go somewhere if I stuck with this."
Despite her success during the nonconference portion of the Buckeyes' schedule, Nichols knew she was in for a big adjustment once Big Ten play started.
"It's been very nerve-racking," she says of her first season facing Big Ten hitters. "There have been a couple of times I have lost track of what I normally do during games because I have become so nervous. I just have to remember to hit my spots and be ready to field my positions because all of these players are so good.
"I'd say the toughest thing about playing college softball has been adjusting to making this an everyday thing. I used to be able to take days off, but I seem to be pitching every day, whether it's in practice or a game. I've never pitched this much before and it takes a toll on the body, so I have to make sure I ice up my arm after every practice and game."
Although she has yet to settle on a major, Nichols says she is getting close. "I know I want to work with special needs children," she says. "I'm thinking of speech and hearing or early childhood development."
Nichols doesn't plan on returning home until early August, and when she does, it will be in a softball uniform. She plans on remaining in Columbus this summer to play on the Ohio Lady Blazers, an 18-under A powerhouse that includes redshirt freshman pitcher Kasie Kelly and incoming freshman Melissa Rennie, who figures to be her catcher next year.
"It's a very good team and the national tournament is in Hemet (next to San Jacinto), so I expect we'll be there," she says.