Powhatan County resident, two-time state champion with Trinity Episcopal field hockey named to NFHCA All-American, South Region teams
Heather Nichols remembers that first day when they announced tryouts for Monacan High School’s field hockey team. She attended the tryout, made the team and began a journey that would see her realize an achievement-filled playing career.
She competed for the VCU women’s field hockey team – her teammates included Powhatan High School head field hockey coach Stephanie Tyson, who also played with Heather at Monacan – and she was part of the Rams when they were ranked no. 19 in the country. After playing in college, Heather coached at schools in the area, including Monacan. One of the players she got to coach was her sister, who’s 10 years younger than her.
“That was kind of a neat thing to be with her and her friends and coach,” Heather said.
And then when Heather and her husband were starting a family, she became a stay-at-home mom and got out of coaching for a time. It wasn’t until her eldest daughter, Abby, and her friends wanted to start playing field hockey that she returned to coaching with the Swift Creek field hockey club.
That’s how Heather’s middle daughter, Cori Nichols, got her start in the sport.
It was around Cori’s third grade year, and Abby’s second year playing in the club, when Heather, with Cori being by her side, gave her a field hockey stick so she could play as well. She was one of the youngest and smallest ones on the field – Cori said she still has her uniform from then.
A decade has passed since then. Her brother and two sisters have tried their hand at different sports throughout that time, but Cori has stuck with field hockey the whole time, every season.
Especially with her starting so young, Heather noted how “you worry about: you don’t want your child to get burned-out.” But Cori never burned out from it. In fact, her passion has gained more fire the more she’s kept playing.
“The older you’ve gotten, the kind of more serious you’ve become about it,” Heather said to Cori. She may have been drawn into it through her mom coaching and her sister playing, but down the road, it was Cori’s choice to stay with it.
“I love the sport. I like how it’s not too physical,” Cori said. “I’m not a very physical person, so I like how there’s not a lot of body contact.”
She also cherishes field hockey for the friendships it’s helped her create. Through her Panthers United Field Hockey club team, she’s gotten to foster many friendships with fellow student-athletes from different areas and different public schools.
“When you go to tournaments and you’re rooming together, you do team dinners – that’s a huge part of it,” Cori said.
She describes herself as a very competitive person.
“The drive to always get to where you want to be, and then when you get there….you’re just proud of you and your team – that’s definitely what keeps me in it.”
When Cori started at Trinity Episcopal her freshman year, Heather, who at the time was coaching her youngest daughter Lainey, offered to help her friend and Trinity head coach Margie Snead if she needed any extra hands.
That’s how Heather joined Snead’s coaching staff at Trinity.
“She’s so welcoming and I hope that she has loved having me that first year; she keeps asking me to come back,” Heather said with a laugh. “I think that it’s been a really good coaching relationship, and it’s certainly been fun to be there, and looking back, what an incredible mom-coaching experience for me to be on that sideline with [Cori] – really for all these years, but for high school, it’s just been really a gift to have.”
To her mom, who is also a nurse, Cori remarked: “You are so busy…you come to practice and then you leave to work the night shift…it’s just inspiring that you do so much.”
“I just love doing it and love working with all the girls,” Heather said. “I love the kids, love the parents, love the coaches.”
To Cori, she would not be where she is right now without her mom.
“She knows me obviously, so she knows how to push me…because I am a more naturally shy person, so she knows what to say to me,” Cori said. “She’s definitely formed me into the player that I am.”
Heather pointed to Cori’s really high hockey IQ and described her as a precision player. She praised the way in which she sees the field and distributes the ball to make things happen, as well as her power, her ball handling and “the way that she always has the right touch – it’s always the right pace.”
And she’s always been a very unselfish team player, her mom said.
“I didn’t feel like I had to coach her quite so much at a certain point,” Heather said, “because she always seemed to make the right decisions and was always where she needed to be.”
Cori saw her lifelong passion for field hockey and her successes over the years lead to this year’s prestigious All-Metro Player of the Year honor, awarded by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
“There are so many great players,” Cori said, “so the fact that I was the one given that award, I’m so grateful.”
Her postseason honors didn’t stop there. Cori, also the VISAA and LIS player of the year for field hockey, went on to earn national recognition as she made the National Field Hockey Coaches Association’s High School South Region Team and the NFHCA High School All-American Third Team.
In all four years that Cori played for Trinity Episcopal and Heather was on the coaching staff, the Titans always made the state finals. In Cori’s freshman and sophomore years, they finished as state runners-up. After that, everything came together.
In the only two years that Heather, Cori and Cori’s younger sister Lainey would get to share together as members of the Titans, they never lost. Since the start of the 2018 season, Trinity Episcopal’s field hockey team has won 44 straight games, including back-to-back VISAA state championships.
Having talented players every year plays a role in a winning streak as tremendous as the one that Trinity has built over the past two seasons. But it also takes having everyone on the same page as far as being focused and knowing what they’re trying to achieve, Heather said.
“You have to be focused daily on that…they’re just as competitive in a practice as they are in a game,” she said of the players.
Especially this year, the Titans knew their jobs – and embraced those jobs – on the field. Heather said that they often play in different positions but were put in places that could best benefit the team, and they did it – they weren’t selfish about it. And because of the players’ talent, versatility and willingness to play where their coaches needed them, the Titans could follow through on different winning strategies against opposing teams.
“I think when you have kids that have an upper-level of play, have an upper-level of thinking and they can execute and they’re not selfish – they don’t go beyond what we’re asking them to do and they play within their role as a team – that’s when you succeed,” Heather said.
And all of the players, whether they were making plays on the field or cheering on their teammates from the sideline, were doing whatever they could to help, Cori pointed out.
“That’s what I think Trinity hockey’s always been about,” Heather said. “They all have a part that they play, and they love each other for it and love the experience.”
This year’s team also featured more new faces on the team than in the previous title-winning season – they had junior transfers, a senior that came in and underclassmen that joined. So this year was more about the players getting familiar with one another; that can be overwhelming, but to Cori, it was also really fun having all of the different personalities on the team.
Some of Heather’s best memories of the team are of the pregame traditions that the players shared together.
“It’s funny too because we’re so superstitious – we have our routine, every game, we have to do,” Cori said. “We all have little handshakes and chest bumps that we all do.”
Even when they’re going through stretching warm-ups, they’ll say something like “Yeah Emily!” and that player will have to pass it along as a means of helping pump up the team. Before games in the locker room, music will be playing and the players will be dancing about.
Especially when you’re really nervous before games, it helps to be able to let it out with your best friends, Cori said. While she’ll remember the games themselves, Cori will “also have those memories that I’ll never forget of just me and my teammates.”
As for what she, her sister and her mom helped Trinity achieve in the last two years, Cori said it’s “really cool to have that to share with your family.”
“We’re such a busy family,” Cori said. “We’ve all done so many different things...so many different sports, and Lainey and I were on the same path these past couple of years, so getting to share that together, it’s really cool, because not a lot of other people have that, and obviously: your family, you love them, so getting to share your hockey life with your family, it’s something that’s really special.”
And since the time that Lainey started attending Trinity, she and Cori have gotten to spend a lot of time together. Especially after they moved to Powhatan County – they now live in the house that Heather’s husband grew up in, on Nichols Road – they’ve shared more time with one another across their 50-minute car drives, their car talks and their time together at school. And while Cori will have graduated next year, she’ll still be very close by.
As Lainey and her Trinity teammates will look to continue building on the program’s 44-game win streak, Cori is embracing the next step of her field hockey career as she will attend and play for the University of Richmond this fall.
She’ll get to play alongside, and also against, friends and former teammates in college.
“I went from Panthers to high school; now I’m moving on to the next level,” Cori said. “I’m just so excited to see how things will go.”