(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.
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.