By BRIAN CUNNIFF
Ask a senior currently participating in spring high school sports and every one of them will tell you how appreciative they are of the opportunity after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic canceled last season.
Then there’s Sayde Nichols.
A senior on the Middle Township High School softball team, Nichols would not have played in 2020 had there been a season anyway. Not after major knee surgery.
Finally healthy — well as healthy as she can be, anyway — Nichols has been one of the top players for the Lady Panthers this spring.
“I am beyond happy to be back on this field,” Nichols said recently. “It’s my biggest dream.”
Nichols suffered a freak injury during the summer ahead of her junior year at Middle when her dog came out from around a corner and banged into her left knee. She ended up needing a complete knee reconstruction. Nichols said doctors cut her hamstring in half and used the muscle to build new ligaments around the knee.
Nichols had the surgery in August 2019. She only began playing softball again when preseason practice began in April.
Although she no longer has full flexibility in her left leg due to part of her hamstring being gone, Nichols has produced for Middle. She went into this week with 11 hits in 28 at bats (.393 batting average) and was second on the team in runs scored with 12 and RBI with 10. She’s also walked a team-high nine times.
Nichols also shines defensively at shortstop and occasionally pitches as well.
This despite a series of injuries to both knees. As a freshman, Nichols dislocated her right kneecap while on Middle’s Florida trip over spring break. But she only missed a week due to that injury.
“It seemed like I was always hurt on and off,” Nichols said, almost while laughing at her own bad luck. “I just try to be the type of player to just keep going.”
A starter for Middle since her freshman season, Nichols has emerged as a leader on the team.
“She goes hard every single day practice and in every game,” Middle coach Megan Russ said. “She usually plays short but we can also put her on the mound, too. No matter where she is, she crushes it.”
Nichols, who has also played travel softball for the New Jersey Gators, appears to play the game with a reckless abandon. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t worried about suffering another injury.
“Always, always always,” Nichols said. “Sometimes I have bruises all up my left side because my body’s moving differently than it used to. Sometimes I worry if I slide into home that I’ll jam my knee. I don’t have full mobility, so I’m always worried.”
The injury concerns are not stopping Nichols from enjoying her final high school season.
“I just usually went to every Middle game and every travel game and was like, ‘Let’s play,’ and I didn’t really think about too much beyond that,” Nichols said. “Now I’m playing every game like I’m not sure if it’s my last.”