Tall, lean and not mean (but a true competitor, nonetheless), Chris Nicholson looks the part of a central defender. What’s also part of the package — though not as obvious until one sees him in action on the soccer field — is his speed. He can sure run.
That point was underlined by Mattituck coach Will Hayes following the team’s first practice Monday morning. Hayes referenced a non-league game last year against Wheatley when Nicholson tangled, and hung, with All-State player Nick Tagios, a genuine speedster.
“[Tagios] was one of the fastest players I’ve ever seen him play,” Hayes said. “Him and Chris [were] neck and neck, chasing balls behind our back line in that game. And the kid [Tagios] after the game, he was like, ‘You’re really fast. Nobody usually catches me.’ But he has that kind of elite speed and elite size that you look for in a center back.”
And Nicholson has something else: a burning desire for a championship.
Ever since being pulled onto the varsity team for the playoffs as a freshman, Nicholson has never played for a championship Tuckers soccer team. That’s something the All-League senior would like to see change.
Nicholson returns as one of the team’s captains along with senior forward Jack Burkhardt (16 goals, 15 assists last season), but what makes this season different is it’s his senior year and his last go-around with the Tuckers. Being a senior brings a pressure, an urgency, of its own.
“There’s definitely a lot more pressure,” he said. “I feel like it’s my last shot. I don’t have much more time, so I want to make the best [of] it.”
With the graduation of Bryce Grathwohl, who made 56 starts over four years, Nicholson is Mattituck’s undisputed defensive leader. “He has gotten more reps in the back line than anybody we have,” said Hayes.
Other center backs in the mix are Bryan Soto and Oswald Cuellar, who will also see time in center midfield. On the outside are left back Luke Couch and right back Billy Hickox. Danny Puluc, who played left back for the junior varsity team last year, is also in the picture.
But Nicholson is the foundation of the defense.
“He’s going to be our rock in the center of defense and we’ve got some great players around him,” said Hayes. He added: “You can’t talk about Chris Nicholson without [talking about] his supreme athleticism. He would be a top cross-country runner if he wasn’t a top soccer player. Yeah, he could do anything. He’s a freakishly good athlete.”
Nicholson looked in great shape on the first day of practice, not that that’s a surprise. He has a reputation for being committed to his training regimen.
“He’s definitely more motivated and that sense of urgency kicks in when you’re a senior, but in terms of actual talent on the field, he’s playing with the most talented group of players that he’s played with in four years, so in theory he should have to do less, which for Chris is extremely difficult,” Hayes said. “When you tell Chris, ‘You know, we have a couple of weeks off. You should probably think about just like laying on the beach.’ That’s not going to happen. He goes on vacation in New Hampshire and runs up and down hills. He can’t stop.”
That might have worked to Nicholson’s detriment when he picked up an injury that cost him half his sophomore season. “That was just through overplaying,” said Hayes.
Asked if anything is noticeably different from last year, when Mattituck went 10-7 and lost to rival Center Moriches in a Suffolk County Class B semifinal, Nicholson answered: “Honestly, the hard work. Everyone’s working hard, so far, at least. We have a lot of competition for a bunch of positions everywhere. We have a pretty old team this year, lots of seniors, and it should be good.”
Hayes said Nicholson’s touch was on the mark during six-a-side play Monday morning. “His ballplaying ability has come so far from when he was a freshman,” the coach said. “He’s been working a lot on that over the summer in summer league.”
But the thing Nicholson says he enjoys most about soccer is tracking down speedy forwards. He can do that. Just ask Tagios.
Photo caption: Chris Nicholson participating in sprinting drills during Monday morning’s practice. (Credit: Bob Liepa)