MAHOMET — Lakeida Nichols was at war in her own head. The Mahomet-Seymour senior is the fastest player in the Apollo Conference — she proved that on the track last spring when she became the conference champion in the 100-meter dash.
Despite her supreme athleticism, the senior forward has never been wired to score.
"I used to be looking for our main shooters and passing the ball to make sure they get their shots," Nichols said. "It's never been about points for me."
Except, she knew her role had to change this year. The years of deferring were over. Head coach Nathan Seal needed Nichols to break out of her shell and go get buckets.
And that's the war for Nichols — a player who calls assists her "favorite thing" in basketball had to score if the Lady Bulldogs wanted to compete this season.
"Coach Seal has been doing a lot of work about getting me out of my own head," Nichols admitted. "He'll go, 'Hey, remember when you won the race in the conference. Remember that? You're the fastest girl in the conference, so why don't you take it out on them on the court.'
"He just shows me so much stuff that I don't notice about myself. It makes me think about maybe he's right and I just go out and do what he needs from me."
Nichols has taken Seal's advice and run with it. The old Lakeida is gone. There's a new version of Nichols, and it's a hooper that literally does it all for the Lady Bulldogs.
Nichols exploded for 14 points, 10 rebounds and five steals in a big win over East Peoria in November. In the Decatur Eisenhower Holiday Tournament over Christmas Break, Nichols had back-to-back double-digit scoring performances in close losses to Williamsville and Mount Zion.
"I definitely think this year has been a new Keida," Nichols said. "Some games that I'm scoring, it's like, 'Wow, I could have been doing this the other years, but I was just holding myself back!' I think this is the best I've been playing in a long time."
Nichols spent her entire offseason shooting. She estimated that she made between "10,000 and 15,000" shots throughout the summer in preparation for her extended role. The increased scoring production has been a big help for the Lady Bulldogs, but that doesn't mean Nichols quit doing the other things.
Nichols leads the Bulldogs in rebounding and is the best defender on the team. She rips down boards and gets M-S out in transition, and her speed creates a nightmare matchup for opponents.
"I'm very surprised with my rebounding numbers," Nichols said. "There are games where you go into the locker room and we have this chain for whoever gets the most rebounds, and (Seal) is always like, 'Keida came out tonight and had 12 rebounds.' And I'm like, what? I don't even remember how many rebounds I get."
Nichols is only 5-foot-7, but she's still able to elevate over taller girls for the boards.
"Playing as a post with girls that are way taller than me, boxing out is one of the things that I focus on a majority of the time," Nichols said. "Free throws, I can get a majority of my rebounds because of my swing move. I'm able to get past people more, and I've really focused on those two and they've paid off."
The Bulldogs have lost six in a row and sit at 8-12 overall, but Nichols has discovered that there is a different vibe around the team this year.
"Regardless of all the wins or losses, I think the main thing we focused on this summer was making sure our foundation was strong on our team and that we were having good chemistry on and off the court," Nichols said. "We wanted it to be a place where we could come and have fun and not just focus on basketball, but making friends and having fun together."
The war in Nichols' head has been won. She's confident with the fact that she can go fill it up. Plus, she's still getting her fair share of assists, which will bring more joy to her than any bucket.
"Scoring has never been one of the big things," Nichols said. "Even when I don't score, I make sure I'm hustling and going after a loose ball. I just try to do things that I would be proud of, even if I'm not putting up points. I just try to get teammates involved. I love assists. So, it just feels good right now. I'm loving our team atmosphere. Regardless of the losses, I'm just having a nice time."