By Jeremy McDonald
SALEM, Ore.– As his signing ceremony was coming to a close in the parking lot at F&W Fence facing 16th Street in North Salem Saturday, Western Christian’s Alex Nicoli grabbed the microphone one more time.
He made a statement already, but the Pioneer Senior had almost forgot to thank Head Coach Gary Hull and assistant coach Geoffrey Martin for helping him become the player he is today.
A joke rang out from the sidewalk and street about him coming back the second day back when he was in fifth-grade.
It was hard to imagine that Nicoli, who became one of the best sharp-shooters in the State, had almost walked away from the game in the fifth-grade. That was, until his path crossed that of the legendary coach in Hull. That first day with the long-time Western Christian coach had changed the trajectory for the rest of his sporting career.
“Back then, I played for a coach that was super brutal. He didn’t tell you ‘Good Shot’, he didn’t tell you all these complements. It just sucked, so I was really hesitant the first day going in,” said Nicoli. “I was like ‘Man, I’m so done with basketball. I just can’t do this’.
“But when I walked into that gym, (Hull) came up to me, shook my hand. When I took a shot, I made it and he was really the first person to tell me ‘Good shot’ and that really stuck with me. I loved it there. That second day, he saw that I came back and I told him ‘I’m here and I’m ready to work’. The rest is history.”
Work he did. Borderline obsessive. He would blow up the phone of Martin asking to put it work in the gym whenever there was a second to do so.
When they lost to Columbia Christian in the 2A State Championship Game in 2018, that work ethic, that determination came out of Nicoli even more. Not just Nicoli, but Payton Richardson and Ethan Halgren as well.
Both Richardson and Halgren were in attendance Saturday afternoon in Salem as Nicoli recalled those 6am practices in preparation for their Junior Year.
“From Day 1, even when Payton, Ethan and I were in the sixth grade…we said we want to win a State Championship. We want to bring a State Championship to Western. We told Geoff that,” starts Nicoli. “I could not tell you my sophomore year after we lost to Columbia (Christian) how many 6 o’clock mornings, before school, we would go out to Western and we shot and we just pushed each other around.
“We wanted it so badly. So that’s where the work ethic came from is the desire to win and be one of the best teams in the State.”
It paid off.
The David-team in Western Christian took down Goliath that was the Knights their Junior year 61-48 to bring home the Pios first State Title since 2011.
“You don’t know how many times I’ve heard they said ‘David versus Goliath’. That team that won Junior year was special,” said Nicoli. “You can’t create that. We’ve been friends for seven years. Playing together for so long, that was history right there.
“This past year…Senior Year, we got some new guys. Austin (Sladek), Ty (Vanderhoof) and those guys…we told them what we wanted to do, what we wanted to accomplish. Yeah it wasn’t the result we wanted, but for them to hop right on board and work as hard as we worked. That was so cool to see, they’re some of my best friends.”
Western Christian had gone through the gauntlet when they got to Pendleton to defend their title. League rival Santiam in the Quarterfinals, Columbia in the Semi-Finals, Toledo in the Finals.
Nicoli called those three games the hardest games he’s ever played. Heartbreak was the result, losing to the Boomers in the Finals 58-48. And as they gathered as a team before enter the locker room, Richardson pulled his shocked and emotional team together as Toledo celebrated the State Title win.
“He just pulled us aside and said, ‘no matter what the outcome is or was’…he said that he loved us. The joy that we brought him was so incredible,” starts Nicoli. “To us now, it was more than a game. That was family right there and that showed after that game. Winning or losing a State Championship is not going to divide us.
“That night, even though we lost, we got to talk about all the amazing memories that we had made in our career. It was pretty cool.”
Nicoli signed with Missouri Baptist University Saturday, an NAIA basketball squad that 15-14 and 11-11 in AMC play this past season before losing in the opening round of the AMC Conference tournament March 4.
The goal is the same: Hard work, high work ethic and dedication to the craft knowing he has something to prove being the new guy on campus. And though Coronavirus has slowed him down, it’s just a waiting game for when the opportunity to come to work on his craft once again.
“It’s a little hard right now because of everything that’s going on. We can’t go to a gym or that, but I’m still working,” said Nicoli. “To me, you’re starting over. You got to prove something now. You got to prove that you belong there, I’ll do what it takes.
“I’m excited to get there and to show the coaches and the players that I’m there to work.”
As for almost forgetting to thank the two coaches that meant so much to his success in Hull and Martin as the festivities began to die down a bit, Nicoli shrug it off with a smile and laugh.
“They mean the world to me. I can’t do enough to thank them and I can’t believe I almost forgot to thank them,” smiled and laughed Nicoli. “But they’ve done so much for me. It’s so hard to leave two coaches that put so much work and dedication to you. You won’t find coaches like that anywhere else.”
Photos By Jeremy McDonald