Morgan Nichols wins Athena Award

By Eric Erickson

From Langford Park Rec Center to Como Park High School, Morgan Nichols has always enjoyed athletic activities as they changed with the seasons.

Growing up as a multi-sport athlete, Nichols embraced the opportunities to excel in high school sports in which she had experience, and also had the confidence to try new things when opportunities arose.

That athletic versatility, combined with leadership and academic excellence, led to Nichols’ being named the Como winner of the annual Athena Award.

The St. Paul Area Athena Awards honor one female high school senior from each East Metro high school. With 10 varsity letters in five different sports and a weighted grade point average of 4.5 obtained in Advanced Placement college-prep courses, Nichols embodies the spirit of the honor.

While all recipients are talented multi-sport athletes, it’s quite unusual for any high school student athlete to letter in five different sports. How Nichols accomplished something so unique started locally at Langford and took an interesting turn within a global pandemic.

A hop, skip and jump from her Scudder Street home across Como Avenue to St. Anthony Park Elementary and the rec center, Nichols played soccer, basketball, softball and volleyball. A deeper interest in basketball and volleyball led her to participate in traveling club teams for those sports.

At Murray Middle School, Nichols played volleyball in the fall, basketball in the winter and softball in the spring while continuing club basketball and volleyball.

That pattern extended into high school with five varsity letters in those sports during her first two years. She contributed to a conference championship in softball as a freshman and never stopped developing as a player and leader.

Softball coach John Fischbach explained that Nichols’ attributes now include being a role model to younger players, like she used to be.

“Morgan just jumps right in and helps the less experienced girls out,” Fischbach said. “Morgan is always positive and upbeat. She’s responsible, reliable and very trustworthy. Always open to listening to her teammates and to giving them advice. She’s as good a captain as you could ask for.”

In volleyball, Nichols was the Cougars most valuable player as a sophomore. It was after that successful season when she decided to focus on club volleyball through the winter and drop basketball. But it turned out to only be a temporary departure from winter school sports.

Nichols tried something new as a junior and joined the Como Nordic ski team. There was a learning curve and a step back from being a star, but she enjoyed the outdoor activity, stuck with it and became a varsity skier during her senior season.

“I ended up switching and playing new sports mostly because I wanted to experience these other sports that I had never played before,” Nichols said.

“Sports have always been a fun way to escape school stress for me, and for my last years in high school I decided I wanted to make sure I was having a fun time with whatever I decided to play.”

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic took away the physical and social outlet that sports provide Nichols and countless other high school athletes. It wiped out the entire spring season of 2020 and altered the sports calendar and schedules for the 2020-2021 school year.

The original state high school league plan for 2020-2021 was to play volleyball in the spring since there was uncertainty about indoor sports. As a result, Nichols wasn’t in the Como gym for volley­ball practices when the school year began.

She filled the void by trying another new sport, picking up a racquet and joining the Cougars tennis team. Teammates noted that the energy level and enthusiasm increased with Nichols on the courts. She became a valuable doubles player and was the Como recipient of the Jeanne Arth Sportsmanship Award.

Regardless of the sport, there’s a consistent theme when coaches and teammates talk about Morgan Nichols: Besides being talented, she’s unselfish and makes her teams better.

Assistant volleyball coach Bekah Hausman said, “Morgan was a very vocal leader on the court. Her high energy was definitely a key factor to our success. Her natural athletic ability made her a player we could move around to positions we needed her in and could depend on.”

As her high school career winds down, Nichols reflected on her experiences, “I really appreciate the welcoming community for Como athletics. Every time I joined something new, I found the coaches and athletes were my favorite part of the program.”

Nichols will be leaving the neighborhood next fall to attend Western Washington University in Bellingham and major in mathematics.

Eric Erickson is a social studies teacher at Como Park High School and a longtime coach of school and youth sports in St. Paul.

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