A star in the East Rock

By John Leonard, contributor

It can be difficult, almost impossible, really, to understand history without the benefit of hindsight. 

So while we don’t know exactly where East Rockingham’s standout sophomore, Tyler Nickel, will rank in the final reckoning of top prep basketball players from the area, it’s becoming more and more clear that he will be in that conversation by the time he graduates in two and a half years.

Dunk! Photos courtesy of Amy Marshall

The 6-foot-7 forward has been wowing fans and opponents alike with his rim-shaking dunks and long three pointers for three varsity seasons – two at East Rock and one at Eastern Mennonite. 

Another group he’s been impressing is college coaches. Nickel now owns four offers from Division-I basketball programs: VCU, Virginia Tech, Old Dominion, and hometown James Madison. He was also invited to visit Ohio State last November to take a personal look at the basketball program there, and Mike Young, Virginia Tech’s head basketball coach, was in attendance at East Rock’s game just a few weeks ago.

While playing in front of the folks who critique every move might be nerve wracking for some, Nickel takes it all in stride.

“Honestly, I expected it to make me more nervous than it did,” he said, after East Rock’s 71-50 dismantling of Rappahannock County on January 17. “In the Adidas Circuit there are live periods when all the coaches come and watch you. After that, it got me ready for the evaluation type of stuff… I felt more pressure, but I also felt like ‘I gotta go. I gotta do what I gotta do,’ and those are the moments I play my best.”

Lucky enough to have parents with college basketball experience, Nickel was coached by his father, Eric, for many of his formative years. This is one reason that he plays on the perimeter, facing the basket, rather than under the basket, where most “big guys” play.

“We started young with fundamentals,” Eric Nickel said. “He never played with his back to the basket. That was an old-school notion. With as big as he was going to be, [the wing] was where he was going to play.”

His parents also made sure he was challenged.

“We wanted him to play as long as he loved the game. But every time he got to the point that he was the best player, we tried to challenge him with a new level,” Eric said. 

Nickel celebrates 1,000 career points for East Rockingham HS with his parents Jacki and Eric.

Many top-flight athletes can point to a time when they realized they were playing on a different level than most. Nickel first noticed it the summer before his 8th grade year, with his AAU team from Richmond, Team Loaded.

“As I continued to play, the game started to slow down,” he said. “I felt more confident in my skills, and I felt that I could compete after a while. But I had to work up to it.”

Nickel spent his 8th grade year at Eastern Mennonite School, reclassifying his grade before he entered high school.

“It was one of the closest private schools I could go to, and my parents didn’t want me to start college at 17,” Nickel said. “It was good; I met a lot of new people. I got to see different sides of our community. They are a really welcoming community. It’s a really caring place over there.”

Moving to East Rock as a freshman, Nickel set to quickly making his mark on the Eagles’ program. On January 15, halfway through his sophomore season, he crossed the 1,000 points threshold, joining just three other players in East Rock’s history (albeit a short one – the high school opened in 2010). Two days later, during the celebration on his home court before a league game against Rappahannock County, Nickel was noticeably serious when presented with a basketball to celebrate the achievement.

“It’s a big milestone,” he explained. “People were a little confused why I wasn’t emotional, but it’s because I expect the absolute most of myself, and I’m not satisfied yet. I’m focused on the future.” 

Entering this sophomore season, Nickel had to adjust to being the Eagles’ primary scorer, taking over for Dalton Jefferson, who graduated last year and now plays at JMU. Nickel misses Jefferson, but has accepted the new challenge.

“I embrace it, and I’ve gotten more and more used to what I have to do to put my team in the best situation to win,” Nickel said. “I talked to [Dalton] every day. I still do. Losing him changed some of the atmosphere around here, but I feel like I’m making up for his absence a little this year.”

This season, Nickel is averaging almost 26 points and eight rebounds per game.

By all accounts, he’s a good citizen, too. He gets high marks for leadership at his school, on and off the court. Nickel often attends other sporting events at East Rock, including volleyball and football games in the fall.

“To be only a sophomore and have that kind of leadership, it’s great,” said his coach, Carey Keyes.

During the recent game against Rappahannock County, after East Rock senior Collin Zirk drilled a three-pointer near the end of the game, Nickel was up leading the cheers for his teammate. Keyes, once a standout high school and college player himself, is delighted with Nickel’s leadership.

“Our motto is ‘family.’ We want to make sure we’re supporting each other no matter who’s on the floor. [Tyler]’s not out of the game very often, but he does a great job of supporting his fellow teammates.”

That doesn’t mean he’s not ready to go when it’s gametime.

“He’s the most competitive player I’ve ever been around, and as a coach, I obviously love that,” Keyes said.

Nickel calls it a “killer mindset.”

“It’s either you or me, and I’m not losing,” he said.

His entire team isn’t doing much of that, either. As of press time, East Rock is 8-0 in the district, and 14-2 overall.

Working closely with Chad Moellenberg at Playmaker MiniCamp in his free time, Nickel continues to work on his dribbling, speed, athleticism and other basketball skills.

“I would give the credit for my success to him, because I was not the player I am today two years ago,” Nickel said.

Two years from now, who knows? Perhaps the list of local basketball legends will be a little longer.

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