Jessica Nikkel

By Chuck Schoffner

 

   Jessica Nikkel had just settled into her chair on the Veterans Auditorium sideline, eager to watch the state tournament action unfold, when a referee's whistle suddenly stopped play.

   Only nine seconds had elapsed and Gena Fiihr, the starting center on Jessica's Lynnville-Sully team, was standing on the court with both hands over her bleeding nose. She had collided with another player and had to come out of the game. So coach Jerry Hulsing pointed to Jessica, then a freshman and Gena's backup, and said, "You're in."

   Now? Already?

   "I'm sure I was scared to death," Jessica said as she looked back on that moment.

   Lynnville-Sully was playing Treynor in the semifinals of the 1996 Class 1A state tournament, and the Hawkettes had to continue with their leading scorer out of the game and a freshman in her place.

   It didn't matter. By the time, Gena returned late in the first half, Lynnville-Sully led 23-10. Young Jessica had more than held her own.

   "I think that's when she showed people that, oh, wow, she could play," Hulsing said. "She had a good first half right there."

   Yes, Jessica Nikkel could play. By the time she finished high school, she had led her team to three state championships, earned first-team all-state honors three times, helped build the second-longest winning streak in state history and was destined for induction into the IGHSAU Basketball Hall of Fame.

   Yet for all her individual accomplishments, what Jessica treasures most were the good times shared with teammates. After all, they had been playing together since grade school.

   "We were with each other on the court and when practice or the game was over, we were always with each other then," she said. "We were best friends on and off the court. I definitely think that played a big part in our success."

   Success might be too mild to describe what Jessica and her teammates achieved. With Jessica scoring, rebounding and, at 6-feet-4, controlling the lane defensively, Lynnville-Sully was absolutely dominant.

   The Hawkettes beat Treynor in that 1996 semifinal, then lost to defending champion Winfield-Mount Union in the title game. They lost to Thornburg Tri-County in the second game of the following season, then never lost again during the rest of Jessica's career. The final tally for her four years: 103 victories and just two losses.

   "Jess was a humble kid who came in and worked hard," Hulsing said. "She was very unassuming of her notoriety. When she received all-tournament honors, things like that, she was kind of like, 'Oh, me?' She was just a great kid. Several of the girls on those teams, if my daughter grew up to be like them, I'm a very proud dad. Jess was very appreciative of everything she got."

   Jessica was remarkably consistent through her career, averaging 10 rebounds each of her final three seasons to go with scoring averages of 16.0 as a sophomore, 21.0 as a junior and 20.8 as a senior. Just as important, she averaged nearly five blocks a game for her career in finishing with 497, which was a state record when she graduated and remained so until 2011.

   "I loved playing defense," she said. "I loved being in the middle of the lane, protecting the basket as much as I could. But my teammates really made it easy for me. I had great teammates. They deserve a lot of the credit."

   In return, Jessica made a life a little easier for them.

   "Having Jess in the middle defensively allowed our guards to go with a lot of on-ball pressure," Hulsing said. "If the guards did get beat, Jess was there."

   "Defense was one of Mr. Hulsing's keys," Jessica added. "I think every practice we did the shell game, the defensive drill where you're working on where you're supposed to be from pass to pass to pass. Mr. Hulsing was big on fundamentals. We had that drilled into us every day in practice. It obviously paid off. More than putting points on the board, we were just as proud of keeping the opponents as low as we could."

   In the 12 state tournament games Lynnville-Sully played during Jessica's career, the Hawkettes went 11-1 and gave up more than 49 points only twice in becoming the first team to win three consecutive state titles.

   They ended Winfield-Mount Union's 80-game winning streak with a 51-45 overtime victory in the 1997 semifinals behind Jessica's 22 points and 11 rebounds, then edged Newell-Fonda 51-49 in the finals.

   Jessica had 13 points and 13 rebounds when Lynnville-Sully beat -- who else? -- Winfield-Mount Union in the 1998 championship game. And in the final game of her high school career, she contributed 16 points and five rebounds in a 53-38 win over IKM that gave her team the 1999 championship. Jessica made the all-tournament team in each of her final three years and was the all-tournament captain in 1997 and 1999.

   "I wish every player could experience playing at state and being in that atmosphere," Jessica said. "Like a lot of things, I have so much more appreciation for it now looking back than I did at the time I was in it. I guess I didn't realize how awesome it was. It was a great experience."

   Lynnville-Sully's winning streak stood at 79 after Jessica's last game and would reach 83. Only Montezuma's 89-game streak from 1968-71 is longer.

   Jessica figured she surprised a lot of folks when she decided to continue her basketball career at Grand View College in Des Moines. She had looked at schools such as Iowa State, Drake and Creighton, and even had a letter of intent from Creighton, ready to sign. But she thought Grand View would be a better fit.

   "They had shown interest in me and they were close to home. I think that's the biggest thing," she said. "I'm such a homebody. It was more relatable to me because it was smaller. I went to school for graphic journalism and the program there was excellent. When I told my parents what I wanted to do, they were absolutely shocked.

   "But they supported me no matter what. I knew I always had their support and that meant a lot."

   Jessica put her name all over the Grand View record book. After her final season in 2002-03, she ranked first on the school's career list in blocks, second in rebounds, third in scoring and fifth in field goal percentage. She set a school record with 12 blocks in one game and had the top three season totals in blocks.

   "She was a really good eraser," Grand View coach Garey Smith said. "So we could channel people into her. She altered shots and blocked shots and made people back away from even attempting a shot."

   Jessica was a first-team all-Midwest Collegiate Conference selection her final two seasons and received honorable mention All-America recognition as a senior, when she and former high school teammate Carrie Norman helped Grand View qualify for the NAIA Division II national tournament. The Vikings reached the final 16 before losing to eventual champion Hastings.

   Halfway through college, Jessica married her high school sweetheart, Brian Maston, gaining not only a husband but a practice partner. Brian, who had been a wrestler at Lynnville-Sully, often accompanied Jessica to the gym and rebounded for her when she worked on her shooting. "Maybe I should say he was the reason I chose Grand View," Jessica said with a laugh.

   "That was a big plus for her," Smith said. "She had phenomenal family support. They were big-time supporters of everything that she did. That was really nice to deal with."

   Every game, Jessica could count on looking into the stands and seeing her own personal cheering section: Brian; her parents, Randy and Judy Nikkel; her three siblings, Emily, Jodi and Kyle; and her grandparents, Paul and Debbie Higginbotham and Melvin and Polly Nikkel. Both grandmas arrived with pen and paper in hand so they could keep their own stats.

   "When you have them always following you, you can't relax and really get into the game until you know they've made it there safely," she said. "Once I saw them in the gym, I could breathe a sigh of relief and think, 'OK, we can do this now.'"

   Jessica and Brian live in the house she grew up in, which sits on the north edge of Killduff, just up the road from Sully. From her kitchen, she can look out on the driveway where her parents and Grandpa Higginbotham once played shooting games with her. Randy Nikkel had been a wrestler but held his own whenever Jessica wanted to play H-O-R-S-E or P-I-G.

   There's no time for such games now. Jessica works from home as a graphic artist and she and Brian have three children. Eight-year-old Conner is tall and lanky. Jessica sees basketball in his future. Five-year-old Carson is a rough-and-tumble sort who's following in Dad's footsteps. He's already involved in Pee Wee Wrestling. Then there's Haley, an active 17-month-old who tries her hardest to keep up with her brothers.

   "I hope she follows the whole basketball thing," Jessica said. "I'm sure going to promote it and encourage it."

   If she turns out to be anything like Mom, Haley Maston can look forward to many happy hours on the basketball floor.