When Erin Nicholas was on the field for Scarsdale High, one thing was very clear: She had the talent to play at a Division I level in college.
But Nicholas opted to attend Division III Middlebury College.
Four years later, she has no regrets. And that's not surprising.
Saturday, Nicholas, who made history earlier this month by becoming the first ever New England Small College Athletic Conference field hockey player to win conference player of the year honors three straight seasons, won her fourth straight Division III NCAA field hockey crown with Middlebury.
Nicholas, whose team went 4-0 in the tournament to finish the season a perfect 22-0, made her presence known throughout the playoffs, just as she had all season long.
The midfielder, who finished the season with 28 goals and eight assists, had six of those goals and one of those assists during her squad's final four games.
Included was a goal and an assist in the Panthers' closest game of the tournament, its 2-0 quarterfinal win over Tufts.
In Middlebury's 4-1 title-game win over Johns Hopkins Saturday, Nicholas, the National Field Hockey Coaches Association (NFHCA) Division III Player of the Year in 2018 and 2019, had two goals, including the game-winner.
Her performance over the four playoff games netted her the tournament's Most Outstanding Player honors.
Middlebury and Johns Hopkins both entered the final undefeated, but Middlebury hadn't gone unchallenged along the way.
At home before a big crowd in the NESCAC final against Bowdoin, the Panthers, who'd beaten Bowdoin 3-1 during the regular season, found themselves in a deep 3-0 hole in the second quarter.
In the most "unforgettable" and "craziest" game of Nicholas's playing career, Middlebury rebounded to win 4-3. And at the center of things was Nicholas.
Nicholas scored three of Middlebury's goals, her first coming late in the second quarter to cut the Bowdoin lead to 3-1, and her last coming halfway through the final quarter. On that goal, which was the game-winner (and one of her nine game-winning goals on the season), she beat a defender, then shot high into a corner.
"Our team never lost hope or confidence," Nicholas said of that win. "By far, it was my coolest athletic experience. To be down by so many goals and coming back was definitely an incredible experience."
Nicholas, who seems likely to win her third straight national field hockey player of the year award (the winner is expected to be announced next month), played the national championship game vs. Johns Hopkins at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut in front of many familiar faces, including her athletic family.
Her parents, Stephen and Eileen; brother, James, who's a professional golfer; sister, Michaela, who played field hockey for Franklin & Marshall (the 2019 national runner-up to Middlebury) and Michaela's twin brother, Stephen, who played golf for Franklin & Marshall, were part of her cheering section.
Younger brother Brian, a junior on the Scarsdale High ice hockey team, was in Iowa with his juniors team, but the stands also included a couple of Nicholas's old Scarsdale High teammates, as well as a contingent of Scarsdale field hockey coaches — modified coach Cece Berger, who was also Nicholas's club coach; former head varsity coach Sharon Rosenthal; former assistant varsity coach Genette Zonghetti and Zonghetti's sister, former JV coach Gail Zonghetti. The Zonghettis also coached Nicholas in lacrosse at Scarsdale.
"Her accomplishments have just been off the charts. We are all so proud of her," Genette Zonghetti said.
Nicholas, who has twice gained All-American honors playing lacrosse for Middlebury, finished her collegiate field hockey career with 65 goals and 31 assists.
The 2017 from Scarsdale graduate, who also played co-ed ice hockey for the Raiders, played for Middlebury this fall after what would have been her final season was cancelled last year amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nicholas, who has garnered multiple academic honors, including being named three times to the NFHCA's National Academic Team, took last spring off from college and will finish her undergraduate degree this spring, while playing her final season of collegiate lacrosse.
Seeing the 2020 season lost taught her to "take in every moment I'm in — every dinner, every bus ride with my team," Nicholas said.
She's majoring in molecular biology and bio chemistry and plans to go to medical school, possibly to pursue orthopedics and sports medicine, a family tradition of sorts with her dad an orthopedic surgeon, as was her late grandfather, James.
She has taken to heart the oft-repeated advice of her head field hockey coach, Katharine DeLorenzo, to "see where your feet are," meaning if your feet are on the field, concentrate on what you're doing there, tuning out other concerns. If they're in the classroom, fully concentrate on academics, and so on.
"It's being present where you are and to the people you're with," Nicholas explained.
That has definitely worked for Nicholas, who said she was drawn to Middlebury for multiple reasons, including its academics, the field hockey team's supportive, inclusive nature and strength, DeLorenzo's concern for players and the potential she could play two sports and — possibly unlike on the Division I level — have an immediate impact on the field as freshman.
Nicholas had just that, recording nine goals and five assists, including two game-winning goals, en route to being named NESCAC Rookie of the Year and helping Middlebury win the national title.
And after that, as three more national titles and a multitude of national awards show, it only got better.
Nancy Haggerty covers cross-country, track & field, field hockey, skiing, ice hockey, girls lacrosse and other sporting events for The Journal News/lohud. Follow her on Twitter at both @HaggertyNancy and at @LoHudHockey.
This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Scarsdale's Erin Nicholas leads Middlebury field hockey to NCAA title