When Kelly Nickell took over the Panther baseball program 18 years ago, he set out to make Peyton a baseball town.
It started with youth camps, offseason workouts and an effort to forge a connection between the program and the community.
Flash forward to 2019, and Nickell’s plan finally paid off as the Peyton baseball team hoisted the Class 2A state championship trophy.
“When I started coaching we had a team, but we didn’t have a team,” Nickell said. “I think they had only won like six games the previous three seasons, so to go from rebuilding the program to a state championship has been incredible. And a huge part of that has been the community.”
Nickell said everyone from the school maintenance staff and transportation department, to the hundreds of fans — including his wife, Melissa, who would often bring a crock pot to school to make dinner after late-night practices — helped his team to the state championship.
“Peyton is a special place right now, and it’s been a magical couple of years,” Nickell said. “Everyone keeps telling me, ‘Oh, your program is so good,’ but it’s our program — the Peyton community.”
Four years ago when the 2019 graduating class were just freshmen the team turned an 11-10 season around to 16-4 for a No. 2 seed in the state tournament thanks in part to a group of freshmen who made an immediate impact.
Three years later those six seniors led the team to a long-awaited state championship — the program’s first, and the school’s second championship.
“I taught most of those kids in elementary school, so I knew they were baseball players and I had high hopes from the start,” Nickell said. “I knew they were going to be good when they came in day 1 and made a huge impact.”
Among the graduating six are three of the top performers from that 2016 team, Rodney Gregg, Rupert Shaw and Jaeden Meyers, but Nickell said his team is ready to reload.
“We are losing six great kids but we have got a lot of talent coming up,” Nickell said, mentioning Bruce Gregg (fr.), Brennen Meyers (so.), AJ Lashley (fr.), Cameron Schaefer (jr.) and Chance Claman (fr.) among others. “This year’s freshman class, going to be sophomores, is a great class, and we have another good freshman class coming in and all the way down to sixth grade. It could be another six or seven years of really good Peyton baseball — and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”