Capital High School junior Maia Nichols plays the same sport all year.
Or does she?
For much of the spring and summer, Nichols roams the beaches of California in bare feet, swim wear and sun screen, excelling in two-player beach volleyball.
When school starts in the fall, she puts on court shoes, socks and a long-sleeved jersey, fitting into a six-player rotation on the Cougars’ traditional indoor team.
Once in a while, she forgets where she is and dives full out on shiny hardwood trying to keep the ball in play. For the most part, though, Nichols, who is The Olympian’s All-Area volleyball player of the year, excels in each variety of her sport.
Arizona State saw enough of her on the sand to offer a scholarship for beach volleyball midway through high school, and she committed to play for the Sun Devils in October.
Indoors, Nichols was a standout last season, helping lead the Cougars to the program’s first Class 3A state championship in 2017. She was dubbed the MVP of that tournament, and was named the 3A state player of the year by the Washington State Volleyball Coaches Association.
This season, the 5-foot-8 outside hitter was named co-MVP of the 3A South Sound Conference after leading Capital (20-1) to undefeated records in league and district play, as well as a third-place finish at the state tournament in Yakima.
The differences in the beach and indoor games are a positive according to Nichols and Capital coach Katie Turcotte, who was this year’s 3A SSC coach of the year.
“You have to be tough to play volleyball. You have to be even tougher to play beach,” Turcotte said. “With only two players, you have to cover more ground and have all the skills. Maia thrives in a competitive atmosphere. She loves challenging herself.”
Nichols enjoys taking on the higher level of responsibility in two-player ball.
“I like having a little more control over the game, and having that connection with one special person,” she said.
For a long time, that person was her younger sister, Capital sophomore middle blocker Maddie Nichols, who also stands 5-8. Ultimately, the Nichols sisters realized their tandem was lacking height, and split up to play with taller partners.
“Beach really helps my defense,” Maia Nichols said. “I dig a lot of balls and receive a lot of serves.”
For Capital, Nichols has excelled both offensively and defensively.
She tied with sophomore outside hitter Devyn Oestreich, a first-team 3A SSC pick, for the team lead with 3.1 kills per set, and was second to her sister with 200 digs. Maddie Nichols had 249.
“She could always jump high and hit hard,” Turcotte said. “She was much improved defensively this year. She has an instinct for the game, where balls are going to go. She turned into a player that’s going to dig balls another won’t get to. Maia also really found her rhythm on the service line this year.”
Nichols served at a 90.1 percent clip and had 24 aces — another benefit from beach volleyball, where players serve every two rotations rather than once every six.
Turcotte also noticed Nichols shaking off a self-critical streak.
“She’s fiercely competitive,” Turcotte said. “She wants to be good every time, which isn’t possible in the game of volleyball. She’s definitely worked at giving herself some grace when she makes a mistake.”
Turcotte is reluctant to point to any of the players she’s had in a highly successful three-year run as the Cougars’ coach as the best or one of the best.
“Maia’s definitely going to be one of the most decorated,” she said, pointing to her various MVP plaques and Capital’s three trophy finishes at state during Nichols’ first three seasons.
“She’s a highly dedicated athlete. She puts her time in the weight room. When she’s hurt, she makes sure to get treatment. She takes care of business. She’s a phenomenal person. It’s nice to work with good athletes who are also good people.”
Brad Keenan, the former Pepperdine star and professional beach volleyball player who is in his fourth year as Arizona State’s coach, apparently agrees.
The NCAA prohibits coaches from discussing recruits until they sign their National Letter of Intent, but Turcotte thinks she knows why the Sun Devils offered, and Nichols knows why she accepted.
“There are certain types (Division I schools) are looking for,” Turcotte said. “They’re out there searching all summer. With Maia, they found a dynamic player, a defender and a playmaker. When they see a player like that, they’re going to offer.”
Nichols liked ASU’s business major and Keenan’s personality.
“When I visited, I connected right away with the coach,” she said. “He can be funny and goofy off the court, but when it’s time for volleyball, he gets serious.”
Nichols knows she’s a work in progress, and plans to improve both her hand setting — closely called on the beach — and develop a topspin jump serve before heading to Tempe in 2020. Meanwhile, she’s glad to have her decision out of the way heading into her final high school season.
“It’s a huge relief,” Nichols said. “I’ve got a lot of friends who are just starting to figure out where they want to go to college. I’ll only have to fill out one application.”
With Nichols back, Capital looms as a tough matchup again for 3A SSC opponents next season.
“It’s very hard to defend her,” North Thurston coach Jackie Meyer said. “She can read the court and find open spaces. She puts the ball down every time she gets the set.”
While Nichols may be the biggest thorn in the side of opponents, and a role model for younger players in Capital’s program and local middle school athletes, she thinks the Cougars are deep enough for another successful playoff run.
“We’ll still have a super solid team, with Devyn hitting, my sister blocking and Maddie Matthews (another first-team 3A SSC selection) setting,” she said. “We have another good shot to do very well. We just need to focus a little more and hold ourselves to a higher standard.”