TERRE HAUTE —
Back in the early 1990s, Zack Johnson started at guard for West Vigo High School’s boys basketball team, so he was well-known in the West Terre Haute community after his name appeared in the Tribune-Star sports section several times.
As Johnson recalls, there was an occasion when he and some West Vigo buddies decided to play a fun game of wiffleball in a friend’s yard. Some younger neighborhood kids whom he didn’t know very well supposedly came over and asked to join in, so they were allowed to participate.
After a while, something happened that one of the youngsters didn’t like and the scrawny middle-school boy — as Johnson described him — left in tears.
That boy was Rob Nichols, Johnson said.
When told that story last week, Nichols — no longer scrawny and living in Farmington Hills, Mich. — laughed and said it was probably true.
A few years after that alleged incident, Johnson ended up being a standout basketball player at Rose-Hulman. Several years later, a beefed-up Nichols became a standout baseball player at the same eastside engineering institute.
Ironically, both were inducted into the Rose Athletic Hall of Fame on Saturday at the institute’s Sports and Recreation Center. Later that day, Johnson, Nichols and the other 2012 inductees — Jennifer (Krause) Lawrence, David Yeager and the late James McTaggart — were introduced during halftime of the Bluffton vs. Rose-Hulman football game at Cook Stadium.
Johnson, now 39, played for the Engineers from 1992 through 1996 before graduating in 1998 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He admits that he was shocked when Rose associate athletic director Jon Prevo, his former assistant coach in basketball, called him over the summer to inform him of his induction.
“We had some great players over the years when I was there,” he told the Tribune-Star. “So I never thought it would happen.”
Johnson, who lives in Terre Haute and owns the modern-day arcade eBash on South Third Street, and his wife Janean have two children and another on the way next year. Although nothing could top his happy family life, Johnson still carries fond memories of his time at Rose-Hulman.
“The extended road trips [to states such as Florida and Colorado] were probably the most fun,” he recalled. “But the thing that sticks out the most was going into the ICAC [Indiana Collegiate Athletic Conference] tournament as the No. 4 seed [at Hanover] and winning the tournament to get into the NCAA [Division III] tournament in 1996.”
Johnson’s last year at Rose was the first year for Nichols, now 35, single and also possessing a degree in mechanical engineering (which he received in 2000). Unlike Johnson, Nichols acknowledged that the idea of going into the school’s Hall of Fame did pass through his mind a few times since his final season in the spring of 1999.
Then Nichols received his own call from Prevo this summer and his dream finally came true.
“I was ecstatic,” he said. “It was kind of in the back of my mind. I had hoped to be up there [for induction] someday.”
Nichols attributes much of his baseball success to his dedication to weight training, which he started when he entered Rose-Hulman in the late summer of 1995. He had graduated from West Vigo — where he was coached by Steve DeGroote, whom he credits for helping him develop as a player and person — weighing 170 pounds and eventually built himself up to 230 pounds.
“[Weight training] made a world of difference in hitting,” insisted Nichols, who overcame a torn ACL and LCL as well as a broken thumb during his Rose career to post several school records.
Nichols remembers Rose-Hulman knocking off a previously undefeated, nationally ranked Division II team — the University of Missouri-St. Louis — during the Engineers’ annual Florida trip in the late ’90s. His contribution to that victory was three two-out RBI singles.
But Nichols appreciates Rose for more than baseball wins and records.
“Rose was a great school to go to,” he emphasized. “Getting a good job afterward [currently at General Motors] was the most important part.”
On a similar note, Johnson mentioned “the teamwork and relying on other people to do their jobs” from basketball as helping him so often in his adult life.
“That’s probably one of the biggest things that helps me today as a small-business owner,” he added.
Johnson and Nichols joined another 1990s West Vigo graduate, former basketball/baseball standout Bryan Egli, as members of the Rose-Hulman Athletic Hall of Fame. Egli was inducted in 2010.
“We like our sports over there,” Nichols said with a chuckle.