In Record Season, Nichols Is Cougs' Big Man At Plate

The big slammer this Cougar baseball season is Rob Nichols.

The Sammamish High School graduate hit three home runs last weekend and leads Washington State with nine.

Nichols is having a classic senior year. He entered the season with a career average of .321. He is batting .341 and has a slugging percentage of .703.

In Sunday's doubleheader with Oregon State, Nichols hit two out but one observer said he could have had four home runs if the wind hadn't been blowing.

After playing shortstop and pitching in high school, he has moved around the infield in Pullman. Coach Bobo Brayton installed him as first baseman last spring.

This season will be remembered as a record-breaking year on WSU's diamond. The Cougars' next victory will be Brayton's 1,000th at the school.

Also sharing in the record-breaking are KingCo Conference graduates Greg Hunter and Jim Connor.

Hunter, a senior from Juanita High, already has broken two marks. He is No. 1 all-time in varsity games played, 209, and at-bats, 715.

Hunter or Connor, from Newport High, will wind up first in career hits. Each has 216, nine shy of the record 225.

Connor has not matched Nichols' slugging this spring, but he has 33 home runs. He is tied for second on the career list with John Olerud, Interlake High grad now playing for the Toronto Blue Jays.

In other career categories:

Connor ranks second in doubles (43); second in runs scored (176); third in at-bats (625); fourth in RBI (154); sixth in games played (192).

Hunter ranks third in doubles (42); fourth in runs scored (154); 10th in RBI (118).

Nichols' nine homers came in 91, despite a thumb injury, suffered when he dove for a grounder during the team's Florida trip.

``Rob was a real competitive kid in both basketball and baseball. He was an excellent shooter, kind of an off guard in basketball,'' said Don Harney, who coached at Sammamish for 19 years.

That competitive fire did not go unnoticed.

``I've calmed down a lot, the last year or two,'' Nichols said. Brayton used to kid him about his irascibility.

``But Bobo told me he'd rather calm a guy down than get a guy fired up.''

Nichols hit more than .400 as a sophomore and a league-leading .390 in Pac-10 North Division games as a junior.

But his pride was stung last June when major-league teams bypassed him in the draft. He is counting on a productive senior year to change that.

Connor plays outfield, Hunter is at second and junior-college recruit Jason King, acclaimed for his arm and glove, is the new shortstop.

``The first thing on our minds is we're going to beat Eastern Wednesday and get Bobo that 1,000th,'' he said. Then in order, the Cougars would like to win the league, the league tournament and go to regionals.

Losing four juniors to the draft, hasn't stopped WSU.

``It doesn't make that big a difference to Bobo. Whatever he has, he seems to win with,'' Nichols said.

Nichols was a short relief pitcher his freshman year at WSU, but the first of two shoulder injuries ended that. Both required surgery. He also had his knee operated on, plus surgery on a freak calf injury.

``It seems like I've been hurt a lot. That's been disappointing,'' he said. ``I'd like to more hitting consistent.''

A change in his stance, from wide open to closed, seems to have increased his power. He used to stand with his back foot nearly on the plate.

Getting bypassed in the draft put a dent in his pride. But his batting success is erasing that setback.