Franchesca Metz’s first impression of Jason Nichols is proof that one cannot judge a book by its cover.
Metz, a Downers Grove native who starred at Nazareth in high school, only knew of Nichols from a distance in those days.
As wildly successful as Nichols was at Montini, he also has a well-earned reputation for his demonstrative, fiery demeanor on the sidelines.
“Honestly, I was pretty terrified of the guy,” Metz said. “Our opinion at Naz was that this guy is crazy, he is constantly screaming at his players. I never knew him personally before this year. Honestly, my opinion of him has changed 100%.”
Indeed, Metz has played a big part in Nichols writing a next chapter that nobody saw coming.
Nichols stunned the basketball community last May when he left Montini, where he won four state titles and 521 games, after 17 seasons for Morton College.
His team in his first year at Morton did what Nichols’ teams always do – win.
Morton won its first eight games and last nine, was nationally ranked for the first time in program history and was in the polls for eight straight weeks, finishing at No. 12. Morton, which finished the season 17-2, two off the school record in a short season, capped it off by winning its first ever Region IV championship.
It didn’t necessarily end the way Nichols and the teams would have preferred. Morton could not participate in the NJCAA Division II National Tournament due to COVID-19 protocols, but it was a pretty darn good ride.
“To say that it exceeded my expectations doesn’t even do justice to what my thoughts were going in,” Nichols said. “I didn’t even know how many games we would be able to play.”
A whole lot of good was accomplished in an unprecedented time, for one thing that Morton got to even play. All of the other schools in Morton’s conference did not, but Nichols is quick to credit his school’s president for taking a stand and giving the green light.
Nichols brought in Metz and Jovanna Martinucci from Nazareth’s state teams, and Dylan Van Fleet who starred at Maine West. A sharpshooter from Texas, Kaiya Braggs, came aboard from Texas.
At Christmas Nichols got Argo product Tadriana Heard, who found a home at Morton after playing her freshman year playing Division I at Milwaukee, and ended up being the Region IV Player of the Year.
“A big-time scorer,” Nichols said. “You got to have kids who can create and make shots.”
Metz originally committed to Kirkwood in Iowa, had some family stuff pulling her closer, then saw Nichols got the Morton job. An AAU teammate who played at Montini, Alena Anderson, reached out to Metz and assured her Nichols “was not that scary of a guy,” that he was completely different off the court. Martinucci encouraged her to come to Morton, and Metz made the decision in July.
“Very happy with my decision,” she said.
Especially after the uncertainty of the season.
“In October, at that point, we didn’t even know if we would have a season,” Metz said. “It was hard putting in 100% effort and not knowing if we would have a season but looking back on it was definitely worth it. Covid has taken a lot from us, but being able to get the amount of games we got in and the success we had, I’m thankful.”
Metz joined Heard and Braggs on the all-Region IV team, averaging 15 points and 9 rebounds per game.
“She is a kid that, when she was at Naz, they had Annie Stritzel, people did not realize how good a game she had,” Nichols said. “My style is one player does not dominate. Frannie had the liberty to shoot 3s, play inside, she took 27 charges. She did a lot of good things.”
Nichols said that his anxiety coming in was that he would not be able to get kids, and get them to buy in right away. The college game is faster than high school, on a bigger court. There is one extra quarter, and a 30-second shot clock. Nichols likes to press, and couldn’t do that just playing six kids.
The college game requires depth, which he will have in time.
“At the end of the day it’s basketball, it’s getting kids to fit your style,” Nichols said. “What we accomplished this year, how quickly the kids bought in, sharing the basketball, we played beautifully at times and we played fast. Totally exceeded expectations.”