(This is the second installment of the WBB series. You can find Part 1 on Rodney Rice HERE)
In a mercenary world like college sports, the story of the star hometown kid repping his community in-state is becoming more rare and more special. As an athlete drawing national interest, suiting up for a local university takes a unique opportunity and a unique kind of mindset and attitude. Not everyone can handle being "the guy" for their state. In Virginia, though, the ones who do, transcend stat sheets and trophy cases. See Dell Curry (Harrisonburg, Fort Defiance HS, Virginia Tech) and Ralph Sampson (Harrisonburg HS, UVA). They become the legends whose names become synonymous with the Commonwealth itself and live on well after their pro careers have ended.
Flashback to 2014. East Rockingham High School in Elkton, Virginia, was coming off an (8-13) season. Seeking a change in direction, the Eagles hired former Eastern Mennonite University (Harrisonburg) player and assistant coach Carey Keyes to head up the program. Shortly after he was hired, Coach Keyes took a quick 8-minute drive east on Route 33 to do some recruiting at Elkton Middle School. Here, Keyes pitched his vision to wide-eyed kids: East Rock playing for a state title. Just 7 years later, Keyes and East Rock are a perennial contender, notching 140 wins (0.78 win percentage) and three consecutive Virginia 2A state title game appearances over that span.
One of the biggest contributors to that success has been a tall, athletic sharpshooter who transferred to East Rock from Harrisonburg's Eastern Mennonite School as a freshman. Now entering his senior year, Tyler Nickel epitomizes what it means to be a community leader and finds himself a top-tier prospect on Virginia Tech's recruiting board.
Tyler is a versatile, dynamic matchup nightmare. Listed at 6-8, 210, he can score and rebound anywhere on the court and defend multiple positions very well. "My scouting report? Don't let me touch the ball. It's that simple, because I can score the ball in so many ways," Nickel says. Tyler has been working on his game from an early age. "We started young with fundamentals," says his father Eric. "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." With a tool kit as deep and polished as Tyler's, it's no wonder he holds so many high-major offers from the likes of Virginia Tech, Iowa, UNC, Butler, LSU, Indiana, Clemson, NC State, West Virginia, and others.
Tyler Nickel made his presence felt at East Rock immediately. He finished his freshman season with 662 points (an all-time Virginia freshman record) and followed it up with 802 more as a sophomore (an all-time sophomore record). Sitting at 1,902 points after a COVID-shortened junior season, Tyler is poised to break 2,000 (a feat accomplished by only 50 other players in VHSL history) and push his name further up the career scoring leaderboard (Gate City's Mac McClung holds the current top spot with 2,801).
East Rock could not ask for a better ambassador than Tyler Nickel. Whether he's rooting on other East Rock teams or declining the limelight in order to give credit and praise to his teammates, Tyler is proud of where he comes from. Whereas a lot of national recruits end up transferring to private academies or other basketball factories, Tyler has stayed loyal to the soil. "He loves our school. He loves our community," says Coach Keyes. Nowhere perhaps is that more evident than his attitude on the court. In each of his state championship appearances - facing off against an undefeated Radford squad in 2019, a tough John Marshall team led by current Louisville center Roosevelt Wheeler in 2020, and against Union in a shortened 20-21 season – East Rock always felt overlooked despite their success. Tyler and the Eagles have always been the underdog, a role Tyler relishes. "They see us as irrelevant," Nickel said in 2019. "That just gives us even more motivation to have people remember who East Rock is and where Elkton, Virginia is, and they are going to know after [the game]."
East Rock has made steady improvement over Tyler Nickel's tenure with the team, and they seem poised to make another run at the state title in 2022- something Tyler is intensely focused on. "That's really all I got my mind around right now is I want to be a state champion. We have gotten very close ... but very close isn't good enough." "He's just so competitive. I would say that's the biggest thing," adds Coach Keyes. "Right now he's ranked a top 100 player. He takes it almost as an insult he's not ranked higher. Until he gets to the absolute top ... he's going to take things personal; he's going to have that chip on his shoulder; and he's going to keep trying to get better every single day."
An exemplary player and student, Tyler comes from an equally remarkable family. Everyone at East Rock knows the Nickels. His mother Jacki is a lifelong educator, working in administration for the Virginia Department of Education and as an adjunct faculty member at JMU. His father Eric has earned multiple state and national awards for his work in collegiate recreation, creating UREC (University Recreation) at JMU in 1995 and serving as its Director ever since. His oldest brother Ryan is a JMU grad and his other older brother Kyle is a former Virginia state champion swimmer for East Rock and a Virginia Tech grad.
Tyler released a Final 5 last week consisting of Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Iowa, LSU, and Butler. He plans to make official visits and commit in the fall. He has already taken an unofficial visit to Virginia Tech on June 1 and plans to return for an official visit on September 3, two days before his birthday.
FINAL 5 💙@TiptonEdits pic.twitter.com/hYNdDWoAME— Tyler Nickel (tnick) (@abg_tnick5) July 31, 2021
Mike Young and the Hokies have a lot to feel good about in the battle for Tyler's commitment. "They were the first school out of all of them to start recruiting me so it's been a strong relationship for a long time," says Nickel. "Coach Christian Webster and Coach Young are recruiting me and I have a really good relationship with Coach Webster because he's been there since the start." Not only were the Hokies the first high-major program to offer Tyler, but Mike Young has let him know every step of the way he's not waiting on other players and he's not going to be buried on a depth chart. Tyler is the guy they want. He would come in, play multiple positions early, and score. A lot.
Tyler and Tech fit each other to a 'T'. Just as East Rock is a program achieving new heights with overlooked talent, so too are the Hokies, fresh off a 3rd place finish in the ACC and improving. In addition to fitting the culture Mike Young has built, Tyler would have a unique opportunity in Blacksburg to log a LOT of early minutes. The 2022 season will see the departures of Wabissa Bede, Storm Murphy, Keve Aluma, and Justyn Mutts. Tyler's incredible versatility would allow Mike Young to move him between the wing and the 4, constantly putting him in the best matchups and allowing him to dominate.
One would think Tyler has to like what he sees in the VT staff's ability to develop players, turning underrated and unranked prospects like Nahiem Alleyne and Keve Aluma into All-ACC players. With that track record, the sky is the limit for Tyler. Rated a 4-star recruit by 247 Sports (0.9667), Tyler would be one of the best Commonwealth prospects to commit to Virginia Tech in school history. Off the court, Nickel is leaning towards a major in Communications. "I'm looking at sports broadcasting for whenever my hooping days end," he said. Virginia Tech, of course, has a prestigious and exciting Sports Media and Analytics program designed specifically for those career goals.
Of course, there's the one lure other finalists simply cannot match. Being an easy couple of hours' drive allows not only Tyler's family, but also his extended East Rock family, to come share in and cheer on his college career in person from preseason workouts to Draft Day. Whatever the future of his recruitment holds, Hokies everywhere hope Tyler Nickel will see this unique opportunity at Virginia Tech as the chance to plant his flag in the soil where he learned to play, surrounded by the people who helped make his dreams possible.
September 3 is a big day. Nickle and Rice visiting for hoops and the UNC game. Need these boys to drop by the Lot 18 tailgate for some Hardee's coupons.
*Nickel and Rice
The atmosphere is going to be electric. What a birthday present to potentially give yourself- ending the recruiting process by committing to Tech and focusing on winning the state championship in your swan song at East Rock.
Whoops, good catch.
The general consensus seems to be it's a 3-way race for Nickel with each of VT, UNC, and Iowa holding something in their favor. I'm not sure how many players on UNC's board are ahead of Nickel, but I know their fans are way more focused on other guys like Cam Whitmore. Iowa is another tough competitor who has been putting in the work for a long time, now. This is going to continue to be a heavily contested recruitment.
Eric Bossi's take:
I hope UNC short-changes him in their recruitment...get it? Oh...nevermind
I would never look down my nose at Iowa. They've got a good coach in McCaffrey, won a lot of games over the last few seasons, and boast a couple of recent draft picks in Garza and Wieskamp. They'll be a tough out.
Good Coach but is an absolute nut case
Damn Wartooth. What a great writeup. Really seems like the type of player/person we WANT representing VT.
This was nice, so I thought I'd share the good vibes with you all. We're all about good vibes here.
One might say, Nickel could plug a lot of holes.
I didn't include it in the article, but in Tyler's shortened junior season, he averaged 33.7 points, 10.1 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.6 steals along with a block per game while shooting 51 percent from the field and 43 percent from 3-point range. Little doubt that with a full season, he would have destroyed the VHSL career scoring record by the end of next season.
He's uh, extremely good.
If CMY manages to land Rice and Nickel, I can see a VT hoops future that includes ACC championships and Final Four runs. With Coach K and Roy Williams hanging up their spurs, the conference is as wide open as it has ever been. Can't wait to see which programs popcorn up to the top over the next decade.
Hold on there, Chachi.
Other teams have good players too.
Please pardon my unreasonable optimism, I confess to being desperate for some version of VT athletics to get ridiculously overexcited about since the past decade has been.... mostly moribund perhaps?
There are only two players in the top 100.
I have nothing really to add to the conversation, but I wanted say thanks to Wartooth for all your efforts. There was a discussion a while back about how we can do better regarding VT basketball in relation to our hoops peer groups. Write-ups like this on VT recruits goes a long way to that end and is definitely appreciated.
Thanks Wartooth excellent work
I've played basket ball at UREC (JMU) with Tyler's father on multiple occasions (and even Tyler one time when he was a freshman. He was there with his dad that day)... Fantastic people. I can't speak highly enough of how wonderful of a person his father is.
I am just all kinds of impressed with Tyler's family. It was a challenge to keep it to a paragraph.
Here's some extra credit reading on Eric Nickel from when he was awarded NIRSA's Honor Award.
UNC's priority target, Cam Whitmore, may be trending away from them, which could refocus UNC on Nickel. Reading their boards, though, the disrespect for Nickel's game is something else. It seems like if you aren't a Top 50 player, you don't exist to quite a few of these folks. A lot of their fans would rather just plug someone in from the portal. Big opportunity for our staff to close out in the coming week.
Look. Just look at this. This has to happen omg
I've been waiting for these pics and no lie, I made an audible sound of joy when I saw them pop.
Post was also shared to Rodney Rice's story. Very curious to see how this all will shake out.
posted to Twitter this morning. I am positively beaming at the thought.
looking very carefully at the responses in his instagram post...I like our chances a lot.
God those Jordans.
Hokie Haven editor just dropped a post-visit Futurecast prediction for Nickel to VT.
Staff swung by Elkton to see Tyler the day before his UNC trip is scheduled to begin, on the way up to Maryland for an in-home with Rodney Rice. Keep that odometer clicking, guys!
LSU conducting an in-home on Monday. No doubt they feel like this one could be over soon after this weekend.
A lot of UNC fans cannot imagine a scenario where they could possibly lose a recruit to us, even though it's clear their staff wants Whitmore more than Nickel. Call me crazy, but I think that's a big deal. Real recognizes real and, like I've said before, Tyler relishes the underdog role. It fuels him to be the best. IF he ends up a Hokie, I will particularly look forward to watching him light up the Heels.
One other tidbit re: his Blacksburg visit
It's not just random fans. Check out the phrasing from the Fayetteville Observer:
Can't share anything specific, but I'd bet this one is over soon. The buzz around Iowa has been gone for a while. We'll see whether the LSU home visit still happens today. The UNC visit seems to have gone very well, of course (when don't they?). Pictures show mom and dad made the trip, which is nice. I'm sure it was a fun trip for a pair of hoopers like them, too! UNC fans seem resigned to the fact they probably aren't getting Whitmore and are still somehow questioning Tyler's readiness like they don't have access to game tape. They're spending more time debating who will start over him or get more minutes than they are appreciating his game.
Being just up the road, I expect our staff was on-hand to welcome Tyler back this morning, but nothing on social confirms that yet. Made it through the UNC visit without a commitment, though! One hurdle at a time!
EDIT: once again, a thank you to you guys for bringing a good attitude to these stories. The staff has worked really hard and done a great job in this recruitment. The navel gazing I see on some other sites by a small number of folks is frankly embarrassing. It doesn't even have basis in new information. Players are not being recruited for the 2005 UNC team. They're deciding about 2022-23 and beyond. We're a hot program on the rise, we have a lot of resources coming in, and we have some of the most capable and talented people in the country steering the ship. We did the work. We're a terrific sell. It's okay to feel good!
I dont know if the edit makes me think good or bad news is coming
For the record, I firmly believed before the UNC trip he'd be a Hokie and none of the information coming out of the weekend has shaken me from that. Our guys really emptied the tank and I just believe there's too much in our favor.
I love that it's cool to be a Hokie again.
I know what you mean but it's ALWAYS cool to be a Hokie
For me and you yes!
either way it goes, we won't have to wait long. He is announcing tomorrow.
Can VT defeat UNCheat twice in one month? I certainly hope so. Really don't want to see this high character, hard-working young man become a Tarheel and play against us.
Yeah I'm not feeling good on this
It pisses me off knowing hes gonna go to a school who fans didn't give 1 hell about him until they missed on every other "better" target😠
This just a hunch or are the tea leaves telling you something?
there's been a lot of insider chatter/flipping in the last 4 hours
It's likely UNC. I think Nickel was the type of recruit that wasn't bothered by the recruiting hierarchy
He was blinded by glitz and the glitter of the unc basketball program. A pretty ironic thing was he storm the field when the football team beat UNC and now hes gonna commit to them 12 days later
He always wanted that UNC offer. It was going to be an uphill climb for VT.
If unc didnt make him a priority last weekend he would be a hokie rn
4 crystal balls today for UNC so not great
Nickel commits to North Carolina. [long exhale]
If they give Tyler the chance to show out in Chapel Hill, he will not disappoint. While I'm not looking forward to seeing him on the opposite side of the floor, he's very happy with his choice, so I am happy for him. I really, really hope the decision works out the way he hopes because I believe he's earned that shot.
This marks the first true "miss" for the staff this recruiting cycle, in my view. No doubt about it, Mike Young and staff did just about everything right, but just couldn't close the deal while Tyler was on campus. On the other hand, I don't know how realistic closing would have been when his dream school finally decided he was a take. Up until the UNC visit, Tech had every reason to feel very good.
BUT! The fact is, we took the University of North Carolina down to the wire for arguably the top recruit in Virginia. In basketball. UNC pulled it out at the last minute. While the loss stings, we'd be well-served to judge this recruiting class based on who we do get rather than who we don't. Credit to the staff for swinging for the fences.
Good luck, Tyler! Nothing but love.
Not directed at Tyler, wish him luck.
But fuck UNC. I hope we beat the shit out of them for eternity. Sky blue asshats.
I disagree with you that this is a miss. A miss to me would be a kid who is leaning VT and chooses someone else after visits. That isn't the case with Nickel. He was always going to go to Carolina if offered, it was just a matter of Carolina finally committing to him.
We don't entirely disagree, which is why I put "miss" in quotations. But at the end of the day, he was a top choice, we made his final 2, and we got him on campus twice, including an OV after UNC's preferred targets were ticketed elsewhere. I can understand folks calling this one a miss way more than any other recruit this cycle.
Back to earth moment. We still aren't a blue blood yet. CMY and company did their best but when the big boys come knocking, they are still hard to beat.
Keep putting up wins, keep treating people right. We're knocking on the door louder every time. I'll be right here when it gets knocked down.
Guess we have to hope that Nickel is a "one and done" for UNC at this point. I really hate seeing talented VA athletes get scooped up by our ACC rivals, but you'd think that would be something we have grown accustomed to by now.
I think the more likely and depressing scenario is he sees limited action until his sophomore year or maybe even junior, depending on who they recruit/pluck out of the portal. You'll find plenty of UNC fans who predict the same. That kind of prediction is fine with Tyler, though, because I know he's itching to prove all the doubters wrong. I hope he does.
One of my UNC friends straight up said "yeah I'm not excited about this guy." I'm like shoot then we'll take him. That fandom has their head up their ass farther than Duke or any of the hoops/football blue bloods
Shame we missed out, but if he wants to sit bench and lose, that's his prerogative.
He could be winning games instead of watching games in the Tourney next year.
Holy crap, this comment aged like a fine wine! Soup for the win!!!
We got big dawg'd. It sucks, but I feel that there was literally nothing else Mike Young and company could have done here.
After one year in Chapel Hill, Tyler has entered the portal. He is accompanied by Justin McKoy, who transferred to unc, from uva.