Looking back on his days as an athlete at Middletown High School, Chuck Nichols marvels at the mentors who helped mold him.
He played soccer for Bob Sheffler, one of the most successful high school soccer coaches in Maryland history.
He played basketball for the late Ron Engle, whose acumen as a coach, athletic director and educator convinced Frederick County Public Schools to name Middletown’s basketball court after him.
And one of Nichols’ gym teachers was Don Boyer, who spent decades developing athletes as a cross-country and track and field coach.
In such a legend-rich environment, no wonder Nichols decided to become a coach himself.
“I had some of the most amazing men coach me growing up,” Nichols said. “And I pretty much knew from the time I was a senior in high school what I wanted to do, and I’ve just been really blessed to have been able to do it for so long.”
But after being a soccer coach for 38 years — one who built powerhouse girls programs at Urbana and Thomas Johnson, helped Frederick County become a girls soccer hotbed and bounced back from a battle with throat cancer — Nichols decided it was time call it a career.
Nichols has stepped down as Urbana’s girls soccer coach. His decision became official on Friday, when he talked with players who will return for the Hawks for the 2018 season.
When asked about his reasons, Nichols said, “Just finishing my 38th year and thinking about it for a number of years. I’m turning 60 this summer, and I feel like it’s time, I need to spend more time with my wife and my family.”
Nichols started his coaching career as a boys soccer coach at TJ in 1980, and that program made progress during his tenure, but he achieved his greatest success after switching to girls soccer in 1992.
Under Nichols, TJ won state titles in 1997 and 2001, and Urbana won state crowns in 2007 and 2016. In all, he guided girls teams to 11 regional crowns and eight state championship matches.
Switching to girls soccer wasn’t the sole reason for the improvement. Nichols was no longer a novice who lacked experience. He learned to be more patient, taking the advice of his wife, Kathy. He gained perspective after becoming a father. And at both TJ and Urbana, he had a stellar staff of invaluable assistants.
But make no mistake, Nichols’ ability to get the most of out his players and to get them to bond were two of the main reasons his girls teams were among the best in Maryland year after year.
Such traits were noticed by Nichols’ peers. Some of them, such as former Tuscarora girls coach Mark Wolcott and Linganore coach Howie Putterman, happened to coach powerhouse teams themselves and repeatedly got into grudge matches with Nichols’ Urbana teams over the years.
“It’s been fun, it’s been agonizing,” Putterman said. “We leave everything on the table, and we all pretty much need a day off after a game, but it’s going to be sad to look up and not see him on the opposite sideline.”
Aside from competing against Nichols, Wolcott also served on Nichols’ staff at TJ, and they remain close friends.
When asked about Nichols, Wolcott’s first response was, “Simply the best.” He also mentioned how Nichols, as a founder of Frederick United Soccer Club, had a profound effect on the entire girls soccer scene in Frederick County. And citing Nichols’ integrity and class, Wolcott considered him the ideal scholastic coach.
“Probably 90 percent of who I am and who I’ve become in terms of my values and how I go about doing things and running a program the way I want is a direct result of his influence,” he said.
Nichols’ final season at Urbana was typically dominant. The Hawks beat eventual Class 3A state champ Linganore, went unbeaten during the regular season, won the Central Maryland Conference championship match and reached the Class 4A state final, where they fell to Broadneck.
The only thing that’s different is, Nichols won’t be back in the fall to help the Hawks maintain their winning ways.
“There’s never a good time to leave, as I told the girls yesterday,” Nichols said on Saturday. “It was really hard saying goodbye to this year’s juniors, they’ll be seniors next year. But if I wait, what about next year’s sophomores and juniors? It’s never a perfect time.”
Nichols compared the arc of his coaching career to the arc of his career as an athlete who, over the course of time, realized it was time to move on.
“I didn’t stop playing because I couldn’t play at all. I stopped playing because I couldn’t play to the level I was accustomed to,” he said. “And there’s a little bit of truth to that in my coaching career, as well, in terms of the energy and the time commitment. I still love it, I still love my girls, I love my coaching staff and the competition.”
THE START OF A CAREER
Fresh out of Pfeiffer University, Nichols took over Thomas Johnson’s boys soccer team.
While he was inspired to coach by the likes of Engle and Sheffler, he didn’t have their experience.
“I was young, impulsive, emotional and trying to make up my lack of knowledge and experience working with teams with energy and enthusiasm,” Nichols said.
During his 11 years at the helm, the Patriots went from a team that had trouble competing with any opponent to one that could hang with most teams on their schedule. But he decided to make a significant change in his career.
“I still had a long way to go as a coach. And I think making that transition to the girls in ‘92, coupled with the fact that by then, I had had my own daughter, Lainey, [who] was born in ‘86,” Nichols said. “That kind of changed my perspective on things.”
By the late 1990s, the Patriots were a perennial state power. Nichols is quick to share credit for that with Wolcott and Bob Viti, who was also an assistant on his staff.
“It was transformational for me,” Nichols said. “The three of us together was just an unbelievable combination.”
But after the 2002 season, Nichols left TJ to become Urbana’s girls coach.
“At that point in my career at TJ, I had lost both my mom and my dad to cancer in like an 18-month period, and it was just time to turn the page and start a new chapter,” Nichols said.
A NEW PATH AT URBANA
During his first season at Urbana in 2003, the Hawks reached the state championship match for the first time in team history. But before the next season rolled around, Nichols had to contend with a much more serious battle — he was diagnosed with throat cancer.
After two surgeries, radiation treatment and recovery, Nichols was back coaching for the 2004 season, and he’s been there ever since.
Nichols’ voice was affected by surgery. But reporters who interviewed him were grateful to find his voice was still fully capable of delivering lively, vivid and insightful quotes to describe crucial plays, intense matches and the valuable contributions of players.
But just as at TJ, Nichols had a crack staff to help him — Keith Bauer, Karin Bauer, Gina Mayers (goalkeeper coach) and Emily Firor. And aside from helping with the task of training players, preparing for opponents and dealing with paperwork, Nichols’ staff helped him as he bounced back from his health issues.
“Without those guys, I could not have coached as long as I did,” he said. “Especially the staff I just told you about, with me coming out of my cancer surgery. I’m certain that I couldn’t have continued for as long as I did without them.”
And of course, Nichols was always quick to praise players. But when one of them, Katie (Ruhé) Delauter, entered his program as a freshman, she was terrified to play for what she thought was a “hard-nosed” coach. Nichols ended up becoming her favorite coach among all she ever played for.
“He was like my second father, making sure I was OK all the time,” she said. “He cared about you as a person, first and foremost, and then it got down to the soccer part. He was very, very competitive, there was no hiding that. But he cared about you first as a person and then as a player, which I think is lost with some coaches.”
“I think he shows how much he cares for all of his players, it doesn’t matter about their playing time,” said senior Abbey Burdette, who concluded her stellar soccer career at Urbana in the fall. “He’s probably the most thoughtful coach I’ve ever had.”
Nichols teaches physical education at Urbana and said he has no immediate plans to retire from that job. As for coaching, he said, “It’s been an unbelievable journey, one that I’ve really enjoyed.”
Urbana athletic director Ryan Hines said it was hard to find words to describe the impact Nichols has had at Urbana. Now, the school will begin the search for Nichols’ replacement.
“It’ll be interesting to see who wants to step into those huge shoes,” Hines said.