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Ex-Lee star Nichols, one of ACC's best in '10, leads Ga. Tech into tourney -- and hopefully World Series

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- It's all tucked away, stored in the back of Thomas Nichols' mind -- filed away for future reference.

Right where it should be.

That's how Nichols feels about the upcoming Major League Baseball Draft -- a boyhood dream so close he can taste it. Just not right now.

For now, Nichols -- a former Lee County star and 2007 Herald Player of the Year -- belongs to Georgia Tech, a team with its own dream, it's own journey. And Nichols is at the heart of it.

The postseason starts today in Greensboro, N.C., where Georgia Tech opens the ACC Tournament against Virginia Tech at 8 tonight, but Nichols and the Yellow Jackets think there can be so much more to this second season.

"We feel like this is just the beginning,'' Nichols said in a telephone interview from Atlanta on Tuesday night. "The attitude is to definitely win it all. It's not one of those years where, if you just make it to the postseason, you're going to be happy. This is just the first stepping stone. Hopefully, we will play for the ACC Championship on Sunday.''

And so much more.

Nichols and his teammates know Tech's history better than anyone. The Jackets have been to the College World Series three times (1994, 2002 and 2006) but have never won it. They finished runner-up back in 1994 when Nomar Garciparra was playing shortstop.

"We know,'' Nichols said. "We know (the history). We feel like we can do it, like we can make a run and the attitude of this team is to win it all.''

Nichols is a big reason. He finished second in the ACC in hitting with a .384 batting average, earning Second-Team All-ACC honors -- with numbers arguably good enough for a case for the First Team. He was also second in the ACC in on-base-percentage (.519), and he was seventh in slugging percentage (.652).

The idea of getting to Omaha and the College World Series doesn't seem out of reach for this Yellow Jackets team. Virginia, which is favored to win the ACC title, may be the top ranked team in the nation in Collegiate Baseball's poll (No. 2 by Baseball America), but Nichols feels Tech, which is ranked ninth in the Collegiate Baseball poll and 11th in Baseball America's poll, can play with anyone.

Tech (44-11) will get big test this week in what is arguably the toughest conference tournament in the nation.

Four teams are ranked in the nation's Top 20. Miami is ranked No. 11 in Collegiate Baseball's poll and 17th in Baseball America, and Florida State is ranked 17th in the nation by Collegiate Baseball and 14th in Baseball America.

"We feel like we're the best team here (at the ACC Tournament) and are looking forward to showing it,'' Nichols said. "We're not being overconfident. We just feel like we can win it.''

And thanks to Nichols' best season since arriving at Tech in late 2007, he might just be right.

"Last year I had a little bit of a sophomore slump,'' said Nichols, who hit over .300 as a freshman. "This year has been a breakout year for me. I think it's a little bit of maturity and a little bit because of my attitude. I go to the plate with the same approach with every at-bat.''

It has worked. Nichols, who plays some third base but usually is used as Tech's designated hitter, said he's heard some debate about his numbers being good enough to have made the ACC's First Team, but Nichols isn't arguing.

"Making the Second Team is really an honor for me,'' Nichols said. "I never wanted to get caught up with stats. I take success with a grain of salt. I'm hoping to get an ACC Championship and a lot more, a national championship.''

That's the idea at Tech, and with those kind of aspirations it makes it a little easier to put the draft on the back burner. Nichols, a junior, knows his bat is attracting a lot of attention from big-league scouts, but he also knows this may be his last run at a title in college.

"I'm trying not to think about (the draft) too much,'' Nichols said. 'I've got a lot of people talking to me about it. I've kind of let people know that I'm ready to come out. I'm ready to start my professional career. But right now, I'm concentrating on winning (at Georgia Tech).''

Nichols also said this team is better, and closer because the players have been together for such a long time.

"We have 11 juniors and about six seniors on this team, and we've been together for a while. We've been putting this team together for three years. We're pretty stacked from top to bottom,'' Nichols said. "Look at our record. It speaks for itself. We were in all those games. When you make it through the ACC with 11 losses that speaks for itself. We're pretty excited about the postseason.''