Josh Nicoloff has little left to prove at Columbia.
Before COVID-19 prematurely shut down the season in March 2020, Nicoloff got off to a blazing hot start, batting .394 in eight games—the best on the team and third among Ivy League players who had played in as many games as he had. The stellar start to his junior season did not come as a surprise to anyone who had followed his career. In 2018, Nicoloff contributed to Columbia’s Ancient Eight title, sweeping Yale to advance to the College World Series. In 2019, the Southern California native earned the All-Ivy League Honorable Mention and was a crucial contributor to Columbia’s Ivy League Championship Series run. Yet despite all of this success, it was Nicoloff’s quiet confidence and diligent work ethic that defined his time at Columbia.
While he eventually became one of the Lions’ most productive players, Nicoloff’s college career did not start the way he had hoped it would. In his first-year campaign, Nicoloff, who played shortstop in high school, came off the bench behind Randell Kanemaru, a fellow Orange County native who was the 2017 Ivy League Player of the Year and one of the best players in program history. Nicoloff began his career as a reserve in part because of Kanemaru’s pedigree and because of the difficulty he had adapting to the speed of the college game.
“In high school, I wasn’t really into the positive thinking, mental side of baseball, so once I got to college and I didn’t have immediate success, that all kind of caught up to me,” Nicoloff recalled.
In a sport in which even the best batters will fail to get a hit more often than they succeed, Nicoloff was not alone in his challenges with the mental game. It is a common obstacle across baseball and at Columbia, and one that head coach Brett Boretti is well aware of.
“In my opinion, baseball is the toughest sport mentally,” Boretti said. “That mental game is so, so important … because this game has a way of really eating guys up. If you’re living and dying by your last at-bat, or your last pitch thrown, you’re not going to be able to continue to play as loose and as free as you want.”
To address this problem, Boretti added a strong focus on sports psychology to supplement the team’s practice on the field. After Boretti had the opportunity to meet the late Ken Ravizza, one of the nation’s foremost sports psychology consultants, during the regional round of the 2013 NCAA Championships, he brought Ravizza’s mental training routines to the Columbia program. This approach helped Nicoloff realize that “you can always find success in everything.”
“So as long as you look at, ‘I’m not doing this or this well, but I’m doing this well,’ that can really help you stay positive throughout the ups and downs of the season,” Nicoloff said.
With this new approach, Nicoloff worked to improve all aspects of his game. Along with his offensive brilliance, he made strides in the weight room and flashed his defensive versatility, playing second base, third base, and shortstop. His progress earned him a spot in the starting lineup the next year, and he capitalized on the opportunity. During his sophomore season, he batted .313 with 21 runs and 20 RBIs en route to his All-Ivy League Honorable Mention.
“I just knew that whatever specific task I was given, it would make me a better player,” Nicoloff said. “Obviously, you just got to trust the weight-training staff and our speed trainers, and even our coaches, hitting and fielding. As long as you work hard at whatever they tell you to do, whatever tools they say you have in high school, you’re just going to become a better player if you trust your staff and you trust your work ethic.”
Boretti had high praise for Nicoloff, noting that even as a young player he had a strong work ethic that eventually allowed him to move “leaps and bounds ahead” in the mental game. Boretti said that whenever he exited his office overlooking the weight room in Campbell Sports Center, he would always see Nicoloff putting in extra work.
“He’s the best player, he’s our team leader, and he’s the hardest worker,” Boretti said. “He’s the first guy in, but he’s literally the last guy to leave. That’s why, in whatever he ends up doing, whether it’s baseball, he’s going to be successful, because he has that attitude.”
It is exactly this work ethic and humility that makes Nicoloff, according to Boretti, “one of our best team leaders, even though he’s one of our quietest—maybe our quietest ever team leader.”
Nicoloff readily admits that he has always been a quiet person, which Boretti remembers dating back even to their first meeting during his recruiting visit as a high schooler. But Nicoloff’s typical quietness ensures that what he does say “speaks volumes.”
“He is an extremely hard-working and dedicated individual,” Boretti said. “I’ve probably learned more from him in the last few years than he has from me, specifically talking about hitting. He’s extremely knowledgeable about hitting and swing aspects of things. I think he’s done an awesome job of sharing that with his teammates and his coaches.”
In his sophomore year, Nicoloff became a mainstay in the lineup and on defense, a change that gave him a huge confidence boost and allowed him to feel comfortable as a team leader, according to Boretti. Eventually, Nicoloff knew that his approach to the game could help him become a captain in 2021, which he views as a great privilege. And despite the season being canceled due to COVID-19, he has gone above and beyond in fulfilling that role.
He found that, although leadership during the pandemic was difficult, there were still things he could do to maintain team bonds. Although the team is unable to hang out in the locker room or spend time together on the weekends, Nicoloff instead took the time to schedule one-on-one conversations with younger players, which may not have happened in person. In addition, Nicoloff said he has made sure to answer any questions his teammates might have, texting and Zooming them directly about problems that might otherwise be intimidating to bring up in the locker room.
Boretti noted that Nicoloff’s quiet but laid-back nature makes him very approachable and easy to talk to, and that his selflessness as a leader is a significant factor in the team’s success. Boretti’s team has suffered when its best player wants to be the clear-cut number one in the room, but Nicoloff has the opposite attitude. For instance, Nicoloff took over wherever the team needed him on the infield rather than insisting on playing at short every day in college. Similarly, his willingness to talk to anybody on the team without looking down on any of his younger teammates, “is a huge part of the chemistry of the team being great.”
“It’s never anything we ever had to ask Josh to do. It’s just in him, that work ethic, that drive, that strive, that grit factor. He’s got it,” Boretti said. You can never have enough guys that are like that. I think that guys on the team gravitate toward that.” After overcoming some recent injuries, Nicoloff will likely become an even stronger leader moving forward.
Ultimately, Nicoloff said he takes pride in his work, his teammates, his physical and academic prowess, and his trust in himself. He hopes that his younger teammates will follow his example and adopt a growth mindset.
“Never be content. You can always grow, you can always become a better version of yourself as a player and a person,” Nicoloff said. “You have four years to play under Coach Boretti, to play at Columbia. Why not push yourself to the limit and see how great you can become? Succeeding and winning championships is an awesome feeling, and one way to do that is to just push yourself to be the best version of yourself.”
Despite all of his accomplishments on the field and in the clubhouse, Nicoloff believes he has one last thing to prove.
Nicoloff has dreamed his entire life of playing baseball professionally, a chase that became more difficult when the Ivy League canceled the baseball season two years in a row. He still intends to use his last year of eligibility at Kansas State University in a competitive Big 12 conference, where he hopes “to show people that the Ivy League ... is a great conference, that I belong in a conference like this, and that all the work I’ve put in can bring me success against great competition.”
Boretti knows Nicoloff’s hunger and drive will set the aspiring pro up for success.
“He’s going to be in an environment where he’s going to get as much baseball as he possibly can get, under some really good coaching,” Boretti said. “He’s going to have a tremendous year next year, and I’m looking forward to watching it.”
Even though you will not see him on Columbia’s campus in the fall, you won’t want to miss watching him play.