Varsity Basketball

Bob Lutz: Ally Nikkel is straight-A all the way

I don't know how many points Ally Nikkel averages for Cheney's girls basketball team. And I don't care.

Same for rebounding and assists. The numbers, in this case, would not tell the story. They would just get in the way.

Watching the 5-foot-9 Nikkel play is evidence enough of her value to a team that is 21-0 going into tonight's Class 4A sub-state semifinals, has won 48 games in a row and is attempting to defend the state championship the Cardinals won last year in Salina.

Cheney is loaded with outstanding players, starting with 6-foot-3 senior Merissa Quick. There's a lot of talent. And I'm not making the case that the Cardinals couldn't survive without Nikkel — they won their first 10 games this season as she was recuperating from a knee injury.

What I am saying is that Nikkel plays textbook basketball. I first saw it in the state tournament semifinals last season, when Cheney beat Holton 64-52. My eyes were glued to Nikkel.

Last week, I watched the Cardinals win a home game against archrival Garden Plain. Again, Nikkel stood out.

It's not because she's flashy or even particularly gifted. She's not the fastest runner or the highest leaper. She's not the best shooter.

She's just so smart. She understands how to play. She knows how to draw defenders to her, then hit an open teammate with a bounce pass. She knows where to go on a fast break to create just the kind of spacing that results in an easy basket. She knows when to leave the player she's defending to help out on someone else, and when to get back.

Nikkel blocks out to rebound. She doesn't often take a bad shot. She makes her free throws. She passes up a good shot if one of her teammates has a better one.

This isn't the way basketball is commonly played nowadays, but it's the way it was meant to be played.

"She does all those things you said,'' Cheney coach Rod Scheer said. "But sometimes I don't think she gets credit for her defense. She's darn good defensively.''

Nikkel never draws attention to herself. Her father, Lee, said she's an intense competitor who was driven to be as good an athlete or even better than her older brother, Garrett, who recently finished his football career at Fort Hays State.

But it's an intensity that burns silently and invisibly.

Good or bad, Nikkel doesn't show emotion. She might — might — wince slightly when she turns the ball over, but only because she's so upset with herself inside that the disgust boils over ever so slightly.

Otherwise, there's no way to read what she's thinking or scheming.

"There's definitely a lot that's going through my mind out there,'' Nikkel said. "But I don't want to be one of those players who shows it on the court. I don't want people to look at me and think, 'Oh, she has a bad attitude.' I want people to look up to me and think I'm a good role model for younger girls.''

You read that right — this is an athlete not only willing, but adamant about being a role model.

Nikkel is a 4.0 student — she said she's never not made an A in elementary, middle school or high school — who plans to study accounting at Washburn, where she has accepted a basketball scholarship.

Sure, accounting. It makes sense. She plays like an accountant, with such attention to detail.

But don't write that in stone just yet. Her dad wouldn't be surprised if she decides to get into coaching, which also seems like a natural fit.

When I asked Nikkel about her basketball aptitude, she credited her coaches from kindergarten through today. She has always appreciated learning new things about any game she plays and has obviously paid attention to the most mundane details.

"I'm ready for (Nikkel) to have a great college career,'' Garden Plain coach Sarah McCormick said after losing to the Cardinals last week. "She's so smart. Even as a freshman, she played like she was a senior. Those are players you usually get once in a lifetime as a coach. She's a special player.''

Indeed, and part of her appeal is that she doesn't know it. Or acknowledge it.

Nikkel is all about her team. When two points are scored, she would just as soon it be someone else scoring them. If she made a nice pass to set them up, all the better.

It's odd, perhaps, that numbers don't matter to someone who plans to study accounting. But in Nikkel's case, her basketball stats are meaningless. She knows when she has played well and when she hasn't and it's not necessarily about the digits in box score.