by Rob Grubbs
A lot has happened to the Sandy Creek boys basketball team since the buzzer sounded on their Final Four game against St. Pius to end last season. Three starters from the team graduated, including Evan Jester who will be playing at Georgia Tech this year, and the Patriots welcomed a new head coach in Jon-Michael Nickerson who will be in charge of building on the success of the previous seasons.
When the administration sought a new coach, they looked for someone proven track record at both the high school and college level and came up big with Nickerson.
He also has a lot of talent coming back.
“There is a great foundation here. This was a Final Four team in February, and we are excited about everyone that is coming back,” said Nickerson. “They are buying into the system, a swarming defense that makes everything tough for the opponent. We are excited about what the future holds for the Patriots and for these young men. There is a lot to be proud about, and we want to continue to add to that.”
Coach Nickerson wasted no time getting down in the trenches with is new team. While many relax on summer vacations, he led a team workout last week in a quiet and hot Sandy Creek gym, far removed from the fervor of the last game played there against Perry to clinch a Final Four spot. The team was going through a tough conditioning workout, and the 32 year-old coach was right in the middle, sweating away and encouraging the players. Those summer mornings are building the infrastructure from the ground up for another impressive run.
Putting in the sweat equity with his players is the only way he knows.
“When I played, I responded best to coaches that led by example, those that joined us in the workouts and poured sweat with us when no one else was around,” said Nickerson. “That is my style. I want the team to feed off of each other’s energy, mine included.”
Nickerson is on an impressive journey since high school that has landed him at the top spot of Patriot basketball, but the start is a bit different than you might imagine.
“I was drafted out of high school in the 16th round of the 2003 MLB Amateur Draft by the Florida Marlins,” the two-sport star from Millbrook, Alabama shared, “I was a 6-foot-6 power lefty and had a lot of success early on.”
That success included being named the Organization Pitcher of the Month in July 2003 and the honor of being the youngest and first-ever rookie pitcher in the Marlins organization to throw a complete game no-hitter, all at 18 years of age. The success and progression continued through the Marlins organization, but each season brought on a greater realization that, while baseball was ok, he really missed basketball.
He finally made the switch.
“In spring training of 2006, I voluntary retired from baseball and went back to my passion, which lead to me Kennesaw State.”
At KSU, Nickerson was a four-year starter and refined his whatever-it-takes-style, playing tough defense, getting loose balls, and being the player the other team generally hated to play. It was also where he learned one of his key coaching tenets that he preaches to his team.
“I learned what it meant to be a good teammate,” he remembered. “Although I wasn’t completely there myself, I begin to realize that to be successful as a team, the team had to be full of great team players.”
His coaching odyssey began after his college playing career ended, where he landed as the head coach at Excel Christian Academy in Cartersville. He saw immediate success, taking the Eagles to their first trip to the GHSA Elite Eight and was named Coach of the Year by the Northwest Georgia Tip-Off Club. He continued his coaching education through several college stops, starting with Memphis University in 2013. At Memphis, Nickerson worked under head coach Josh Pastner, who is now just up the road as the head coach at Georgia Tech. Nickerson also coached at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), the same school that produced Georgia State Head Coach Ron Hunter, for two seasons before heading back home to Faulkner University in Montgomery, Alabama last season before taking the Patriot head job.
“While a lot of coaches talk about attention to detail, you learn as a college coach what that really means,” he said. “That’s what I bring. Those are the things my college experience taught me.”
With his diverse background, there are many role models to learn from, but when asked about who was the most influential in his life and career, he was quick to point to his mom, Patsy.
“First, she taught me the concept of a ‘sweet spot,’ where as a youngster I learned my shot in a grass covered court and she taught me a strong work ethic,” he remembered. “My father died when I was young, and it was just my mom with myself and my two brothers, who were all involved in sports. She made so many sacrifices for us. I am forever grateful and that gratitude is what fuels my passion today.”
When it came to basketball players he most admired, “My favorite player growing up was Charles Barkley—his strength and toughness stood out to me. Today, my favorite player is Draymond Green from the Golden State Warriors (who just won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year).”
There is a pattern there. If the coach respects tough, defensive-minded players, then you get a glimpse into his coaching style and what he wants to instill in his team.
“My passion is to coach a man-to-man defense. The hardest thing to do in basketball is to cover man-to-man, but it is more than that, it’s the total team concept, to help your teammate and to push each other, contest passes, and contest shots. That attitude feeds every other aspect of the game.”
As Nickerson begins the next chapter in his career, he and his wife, Amber, have moved to only three miles from the campus, and their young son, Austyn-Scott, has already started working on his shot and man-to-man defense as well. Their tenure in Tyrone is just beginning, but it could be a fun one for the newest members of the Patriot family.