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Modest Nichols leads Tigers with clutch scoring, tenacity

Some athletes stand around talking to themselves. Some eat the same pregame lunch. Some meditate in solitude.

However, for Cassie Nichols, women's water polo's sophomore sensation, getting psyched for a game involves warming up to music — with her team.

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"She is the ultimate team player," head coach Luis Nicolao said. "She will do whatever it takes to help this team win. She is a player that makes the other players around her better."

Cassie Nichols is not only a team player, but a team leader as well. She led Princeton with 97 goals last season, including the shot that gave the Tigers a 10-9 victory over Maryland in the Eastern College Athletic Conference championship game last April.

'That was one of the most exciting games last year," Nichols — who plays the position of driver, — said. "The best goal was Alina Brown's, which tied the game and sent us into overtime."

Despite her many accolades, Nichols remains humble.

"Cassie downplays her skill," freshman Libby Wood said. "You would not know from talking to her that she is an amazing player. She is so modest."

In only her fifth season as a water polo player, Nichols has established herself among the best in the sport.

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Cassie, formerly a competitive swimmer, eventually became tired of swimming and decided to try water polo in her sophomore year at Santa Barbara High School in California.

"I grew up watching my older brother play, so that made the transition easier," Nichols said.

It was not long after taking up the sport that Nichols was named Santa Barbara News Press Player of the Year, receiving that honor after her senior season.

Such success in the sport has continued on here at Princeton.

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"College water polo is much more aggressive, and the players are stronger and faster," Nichols said. "In high school it was easier to just rely on skill and strategic playing; now we also have to play a more physical game."

Nichols had no trouble adjusting to college water polo. As a freshman she earned herself All-Ivy, All-East and All-American accolades. Now, with a year of experience under her belt, Nichols is expected to repeat last year's success.

The predictions came to pass last weekend at DeNunzio Pool. Nichols led the Tigers (1-0) to a 12-5 defeat of Villanova (0-1).

"The Villanova game was important because it was our first official game, and I was nervous about how we would all play with each other," Nichols — who was the game's leading scorer with three goals and two assists — said.

Nichols plays a smart game. Strategically placing herself in the right place at the right time, she has become the team's offensive backbone.

Yet, what makes defending Nichols even more difficult is that she is left-handed. Most players are right-handed, and when it comes to defending, players expect righties. Nichols, on the other hand, takes her opponents by surprise.

"Cassie is awesome," fellow driver Wood said. "She is an amazing player who brings leadership, moral support and knowledge of the game to the team."

The team will look for a strong performance from Nichols this weekend at the Princeton Invitational when it hosts Indiana and UMass at DeNunzio Pool.

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