As Takia Nichols prepared to announce her destination to play college softball, she wanted three things.
The first was a program with teammates that she could bond with, just as she’s grown close to so many of her teammates at Cedar Ridge. The second was dugout energy, like what she saw when North Carolina Central faced North Carolina A&T at Thomas Brooks Park in Cary last month. The Eagle-Aggie rivalry is, by no means, limited to only the gridiron and the hardwood. When Joirea Dumas hit a walkoff single for Central in the bottom of the 10th inning to win 6-5, her Eagle teammates swarmed the field and mobbed her in celebration.
The third was a focus on her professional future for a career in crime forensics. It’s an area that her coach, Allen Byrd, is very familiar with. Byrd, who helped Nichols throughout the process of making her college decision, is an Assistant Chief with the Mebane Police Department.
On Friday night, Nichols made her decision final.
She was going to North Carolina Central.
Before she tweeted the official word, Nichols called Byrd to inform him. By that point, Byrd and his wife Brenda were cruising down Highway 17 near Brunswick County for their Memorial Day vacation.
As Brenda constantly reminds her husband, trips to Shallotte bring back unpleasant memories of Cedar Ridge’s crushing 4-3 loss in nine innings to West Brunswick in the third round of the 2018 3A State Playoffs. It ended the greatest season in Red Wolf softball history. Cedar Ridge was 17-1 and won the Big 8 Conference championship with a 14-0 record. The night ended with Byrd’s best player, Tori Dalehite, going to the hospital to treat a broken hand. After a four-hour bus ride back to Hillsborough, Byrd reported to work the following morning with no sleep. Four years later, he’s still not sure the right team won that night.
“I always throw my finger out where I ride past Brunswick County,” Byrd jokes. “But it’s only my index finger.”
The following year, Nichols was a freshman when the Red Wolves faced West Carteret in the 2nd round of the state playoffs. Before the game, Byrd treated his team to a walk along the beach near Morehead City. Hours later in the fourth inning, Nichols crushed a fastball over the left field fence that disappeared into the trees. It was the eighth home run of her career. Cedar Ridge would advance 6-3.
Nichols, the 2021 Big 8 Conference Player of the Year, is the all-time home run hitter in Cedar Ridge history with 26 in 42 games. This year, Nichols hit 13 home runs and 38 RBIs, both tops in the Big 8.
Marshall, Norfolk State, North Carolina A&T and Winston-Salem State showed interest in Nichols. Ultimately, Nichols said NCCU was the best fit for several reasons.
“I absolutely wanted to attend an HBCU,” Nichols said. “That was important to me. I love the energy that the Central players have. There’s nothing like that at any other place in softball. I saw that when they played A&T. That was the first thing that attracted me to Central.”
Central had reached out to Nichols during her junior year. Byrd knew several members of Central’s coaching staff.
“They were already looking at her,” Byrd said. “Knowing what type of kid she is and what type of student she is, it really worked out. It was truly great to see because when you see kids that work hard like she does, it’s great. Takia did it all herself.”
Nichols grew acclimated to the environment of HBCU softball several years ago when she traveled to Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina during an individual camp.
“That opened my eyes,” Nichols said. “It was a whole new world. It reminded me of Cedar Ridge. I wanted to be at a place where the team is close. I want to have teammates with a friendship like me and Ava (Lowry, a Red Wolf shortstop who has committed to North Carolina Wesleyan) have. You can’t beat that.”
Nichols has also played summer travel ball with the N.C. Rockers, the Carolina Cardinals and the N.C. Firecrackers.
As for life after softball, Nichols wants to follow in her coach’s footsteps. She’s looking into criminal forensics.
“Allen has been very involved in this whole process,” Nichols said. “He’s met with coaches and talked with my mom. And he’s told me about what I life in law enforcement is like. The good and the bad.”
“At the end of the day, you want kids to pursue what they desire,” Byrd said. “As a head coach, to see a player follow in your footsteps, that’s kind of amazing.”
On May 15, North Carolina Central reached the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament Championship game, where they could have secured its first trip to the NCAA Division I Tournament. Morgan State ended the Eagles’ hopes with a 10-5 win in Norfolk, Virginia. Central is currently without a permanent head coach. Last September, Cat Tarvin became the interim coach after the resignation of Vashion Johnson, who left to pursue another opportunity. Central is expected to name a permanent head coach in July.
Durham college softball, still in its infancy, is red hot right now. Before his departure, Johnson took Central to a 23-win season in 2019, including an upset over North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Duke, in its fourth season as a program, won its first Atlantic Coast Conference championship earlier this month.
All of that is in the distant future for Nichols. There’s still the matter of her final season at Cedar Ridge. She isn’t treating it as a stepping stone before leaving for Division I college softball. It’s the last time she gets to play with classmates Ava Lowry and Olivia Aitkin, as well as rising juniors Hayley King and Tori Carden.
2021 left a sour taste in her mouth. In a standard year, the Red Wolves #33 ranking in the MaxPreps standings would have put them comfortably in a 64-team field for the 3A State Playoffs. But because of the pandemic, it was reduced to a 32-team tournament and the Red Wolves were on the outside looking in for the first time since 2017.
Nichols knows firsthand that she’s about to enter the new 3A Central Conference, which will bring higher-caliber competition. It includes 2019 3A State Champion Eastern Alamance, Western Alamance, as well as familiar rivals Orange and Northwood.
It also isn’t changing her goals for her Cedar Ridge swan song.
“I want to make states next year,” Nichols said. “I know we’re in a new league. But this team and this school mean a lot to me. I don’t want to leave without winning another playoff game. I think we can do better next year and I can do better. That’s my goal.”