by Will Maupin
Former Gonzaga Prep standout Ryan Nicholas doesn’t root for the Zags.
“I definitely did, especially when I was younger,” he says.
These days, the senior forward is in the business of beating, rather than supporting, Gonzaga. Nicholas and his Portland Pilots will visit Gonzaga tonight, looking for a second straight win over his hometown’s team.
Nicholas, the 2010 Greater Spokane League MVP, was far from the only talented athlete during his days at Gonzaga Prep. Six of his teammates went on to play for NCAA Division I teams. Most notable among them are Gonzaga’s David Stockton and Washington State’s Travis Long, who currently plays for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles.
It was during high school that his feelings towards the Zags started to change. Nicholas committed to the University of Portland before the start of his senior season. The Pilots’ West Coast Conference affiliation, and the chance to play the Zags didn’t come into play when he was trying to decide on a school.
Nicholas didn’t deny that playing the Zags twice a year does have its perks.
“It’s nice to go back every year,” he said, “it’s a cool experience to be able to share that with friends and family.”
Visiting teams are given an allotment of tickets to hand out to friends or family. In the always sold out Kennel, it’s not easy to get a seat. Even if you’re related to one of the players.
“I have so much family there that I barely have enough for all of them,” Nicholas said.
Hopefully he has enough this time because, not only will this be his last game in Spokane but, it comes as he is playing the best basketball of his career. Averaging 8.9 rebounds per game, Nicholas is the WCC’s leading rebounder.
His minutes and points per game are down somewhat from last season, but that’s no fault of his. This year’s Portland team is much better and more balanced than it has been in years past. Over the past 10 seasons, the Pilots have defeated the Zags once — on Jan. 9. This Pilots team did what none over the past decade were able to do. It was an easy victory in Portland, 82-73, in which Nicholas contributed eight points and nine rebounds.
Over Nicholas’ career the Pilots have played a non-conference schedule more difficult than even Gonzaga fans are accustomed to. In November, they traveled to East Lansing, Mich., for a date with then No. 1 Michigan State. The Pilots played twice at Kentucky’s Rupp Arena, about which Nicholas said, “Playing at Kentucky, there are so many more people [than at Gonzaga], it’s like an NBA arena.” That experience doesn’t mean he and the Pilots are ready for the Kennel, where, he says, “you can literally feel the students.”
The Zags will need that energy on Wednesday if they want to beat a team that knows it can beat them and isn’t afraid of their building. Nicholas, obviously, wants to win. But, win or lose, he’ll be happy about one thing.
“It’s cool to be home,” he said, “we don’t get much time at home.”
Gonzaga vs. Portland • 8 pm tonight • McCarthey Athletic Center • Televised live on KHQ6