In the hallways of Cherokee High, senior Willis Nicholson doesn't stand out.
Among his teammates, Nicholson doesn't stand out in his practice gear. The 5-8 point guard doesn't garner instant attention among the nine seniors on the Chiefs' roster. He tends to melt into the group and appears almost a bit shy.
But give Nicholson a basketball and things quickly change.
"There's a reason we changed so much on Jan. 31 last year," coach Ron Powell said. "That was when we got him into the lineup [he transferred from Prep Charter] and from that point we were a different team."
The Chiefs, who entered the year ranked in the top five in several polls, had struggled throughout a tough early-season schedule. To be fair, the Olympic Conference presents a challenge every night and Cherokee, which finished 20-6 and second in the Olympic American, needed the guidance of Nicholson.
Once Nicholson took his spot on the court, Cherokee went on a run that some believe ended too soon in an overtime loss to Lenape in the South Jersey Group 4 semifinals. Count the senior as one of those believers.
"That's a game you can play over again and again in your mind," Nicholson said. "That last game makes you want to come back right away. I don't think about any of the stuff I need to do. This is about the team and this team is good enough to do anything. I'm just glad I'm a part of it.
"Moving over from Philly was the best thing I've ever done in my life. It's been better in a lot of ways. It's been better for school, for me and basketballwise."
Nicholson has a great supporting cast, and he is the first one to point that out. The Chiefs have plenty of size in 6-9 senior Ryan McKeaney and 6-7 Phil Henry. They have a certain toughness and they certainly have enough experience to survive the day-in and day-out struggles of a rigorous schedule.
"He's one of, if not the best, guard in South Jersey," Powell said. "Good things come in small packages. The one thing everyone has to realize is that he has an incredible basketball IQ. I think that sometimes gets overlooked when you watch him play.
"Here's a kid that knows how to keep everyone happy while still getting his shots. We're fortunate that he understands how to get everyone involved."
Nicholson did that a year ago and quickly gained the attention of South Jersey basketball, as he averaged 17 points and almost five assists per game. His quickness translated favorably to defense, which is just the garnish for a player who is thinking about only one thing - winning.
"It's fine that we are getting attention but it doesn't mean much if we don't go out and do what we're supposed to do on the court," Nicholson said. "I take it all as a compliment and as motivation. But I have to make it better for my team. I want this team to improve and get better. I can't do it all by myself. That's something everyone forgets. I can't do anything without my team.
"We have plenty of things we can do better, but I really think it's consistency on defense that we need to improve."
Improvement that will play out in front of plenty of interested eyes since Nicholson is not only a member of one of the top teams in South Jersey but has yet to decide on a college. Which adds up to plenty of attention and pressure.
"I don't think that bothers him," Powell said. "He just goes out and plays. I don't think he pays much attention to the hoopla. He's not the only senior, we have nine of them. We have tried to make them understand that people have a nice opinion of you but you have to remember that it doesn't matter now. The only time that matters is at the end of the season. I think if you take a look at what our football team did [winning the Group 4 title] then you understand what we want to do here. [Nicholson] understands that better than anyone." *
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