By Rick Assad
If you’re lucky, a high school athlete will get to experience what it’s like to be on the biggest stage.
That stage is playing for a coveted CIF Southern Section championship and Gunnar Nichols was the starting pitcher for Burroughs High last May and knows what that’s like after leading the Bears to a 1-0 victory over Moreno Valley in the Division V title game.
“I will never forget the feeling of winning the championship. It was super exciting to win the program’s first CIF title and to celebrate it with my teammates,” said the Pepperdine freshman of that Friday afternoon.” Even though my main emotion was that of pure joy, there was also an underlying feeling of relief.”
Nichols said it was thrilling and pressure packed.
“There was a lot of pressure building up throughout the playoffs, all the way into that final game,” he said. “Once it was over, it was as if a weight was lifted off my shoulders.”
Knowing beforehand that Nichols, who carved out a 10-2 record with an 0.89 earned-run average with 107 strikeouts, 17 walks, five complete games and four shutouts across 78 and two-third innings and was selected All-CIF first team and Pacific League first team in his senior season, would be tabbed for the season’s biggest assignment, was he nervous?
“The day before the championship game, I will admit, I was very nervous,” he readily admitted. “All I could do was think about all of the possible outcomes and what would happen if we won or lost. On game day, I was locked in the moment I got onto the bus to travel. No nerves at all.”
Matt Magallon, the Burroughs coach, knows that he had the talented right-hander to lean on.
“Gunnar is such an amazing person. I was extremely fortunate to coach him,” he said. “What he did last year will be legendary but mark my words. What he did last year was only the beginning of his bright future. His coachability, adaptability and poise are what will separate him for years to come.”
Even though the Bears were not the favorite to capture the Division V banner, Nichols still believed.
“Yes, I knew we had the opportunity to win. It was the team’s goal from the very start to make it to the championship, but I think the real reason we made it was because the team just enjoyed playing baseball together,” he pointed out. “Whether it was on the field playing games or off the field eating Chipotle, the team’s bond kept us going through the season. The fact that we won the championship was a cool bonus to add on to a fun season.”
Though the Bears went 23-11 and 11-3 in league, coming into that match, what made Nichols so sure Burroughs would emerge with a triumph?
“Burroughs’ success came from doing what we needed to do at the right time,” he explained. “Our team was clutch when we needed it, and we couldn’t have done that any better when we were in the playoffs. We were able to outscore the other team and hold the lead.”
Because it was a 1-0 win, every toss meant something. What was Nichols thinking out on the mound?
“When I start a game, I really don’t think about anything. I am always prepared and confident because I’ve pitched many times before,” he said. “During a game, my mind is perfectly clear. My entire focus is on throwing my best pitch and hitting a spot.”
No pitcher or team is perfect, so there’s always something to learn.
“After a loss, I would reflect on what I could have done better in my outing. I would go into practice the following week and specifically work on the things I thought I needed to,” Nichols said. “It could mean honing pitches if they were off or fine-tuning mechanics if I was inconsistent. The work I did that week prepared me for the next game.”
Nichols is as cool a customer on the hill as you’re going to find and that’s so critical for ultimate success.
“I would say being mentally relaxed is one of my strengths. I perceive baseball and pitching as a job. I work on my job every day, so I should in turn be good at it,” he noted. “Knowing I have put hours upon hours into pitching, I am confident in my abilities and have complete focus on the task at hand. My comfort on the mound makes me calm and collected.”
Because baseball is played several times a week at the prep level, it helped Nichols maintain his focus and always being ready.
“Having played baseball my entire life, I have found what routine works for me. I understand my body, what I like and what doesn’t work for me, to keep it healthy and ready to play,” he said. “Staying healthy allows me to constantly get better and provide for my team.”
Nichols talked about what it takes to be a winning hurler.
“From my personal experience, the mental aspect is just as important as the physical part of pitching. You need to be able to block out the noise and focus on being the best you can be with what you have that day,” he said. “There should be a certain level of confidence included as well because as a pitcher, you need to believe that you can beat any batter at any time. If there is any visible doubt, it gives the batter more confidence and more of a chance to hit the ball.”
Nichols’ father, Brian, played baseball for Burroughs and graduated in 1996, and is a keen observer, and along with Kate, his wife, each supported their son.
The elder Nichols also knows something about throwing the baseball after having pitched for Los Angeles City College, Azusa Pacific and then signing with the New York Mets in 1999.
“The physical ability and the mental maturity he [Gunnar] have developed over the past two years have really been on his own while working with his coaches at The Texas Baseball Ranch, and now at Pepperdine,” he said.
Nichols, who has worked production and postproduction, most notably for Warner Bros. Pictures for more than two decades, added: “With his baseball IQ far surpassing mine some time ago, the best advice I can give him is to just keep doing what he’s been doing,” he said. “We’re all very proud of him.”
The elder Nichols and his wife were there that overcast day when the Bears claimed the school’s first baseball crown.
“As a mom or dad, you want to give your kids everything they need to succeed. However, you can’t just give your kid and their friends a CIF title,” he said. “They have to earn it. Watching Gunnar and his teammates celebrate after that last out, as a parent made me feel proud that they were able to accomplish something that special for each other and their school.”
The elder Nichols went on: “Most people don’t realize that pitching development is a marathon, not a sprint,” he said. “An example of that is while everyone else his age was chasing velocity, Gunnar prioritized movement pattern efficiency and recovery. By doing so, his arm stayed healthy, allowing him to pitch more often with his best stuff deep into games and into the season. So, when it came time for the playoffs, he was able to pitch three complete games of over 100 plus pitches each, while maintaining his command (30 strikeouts to one walk), peak velocity and spin rates.”
Nichols talked about what it’s like to be in his first year at Pepperdine.
“The biggest difference between high school and college is the skill level. You occasionally come across great players in high school, but almost every player in college deserves to be there,” he said. “It feels funny being a freshman again because I am back to being the youngest and least experienced. I am excited because I have a lot to learn.”
Magallon chimed in. “I’m excited for him this season and can’t wait to see him doing what he’s doing on the bump,” he said.
It’s always about taking steps and Nichols is in phase two of that journey with the Waves.