Jason Guarente (@JasonGuarente)
(Ed. Note: This article is part of our 2021-22 season coverage, which will run for the six weeks preceding the first official games of the year on Nov. 10. To access all of our high school and college preview content for this season, click here.)
Neither the prediction nor the way it came true was a surprise to Hannah Nihill’s teammates. To play alongside her is to believe. Even when all signs point to the contrary.
Drexel trailed Delaware by nine points at halftime of the Colonial Athletic Association championship game in March and there wasn’t much reason to expect a turnaround.
Hannah Nihill (above) is back for a fifth year at Drexel thanks to last year's NCAA COVID eligibility waiver. (Photo courtesy Sideline Photos/Drexel Athletics)
Delaware was the top seed. It defeated Drexel twice four weeks earlier. Why should this time be any different?
For the Dragons, it was simple. Because Nihill said so.
“She kept telling us, ‘We’re not losing this game,’” senior Maura Hendrixson said. “We all just believed her. Yeah, we’re not losing. This isn’t happening. She rallied us together. To see her go off in the third and fourth quarters was astonishing. We followed her lead.”
Nihill scored 14 points, grabbed six rebounds and collected four steals that night. The 5-foot-3 guard scored five points during an 11-0 run that put Drexel ahead to stay.
Twenty basketball minutes after Nihill put her “refuse to lose” motto to the test, Drexel was posing for pictures with the trophy. It was the school’s first title in 12 years. The one Nihill came there to capture.
“We knew it was our time,” the Drexel Hill native said. “The year before was our year and it got shut down because of COVID. I just knew this was the year it was supposed to happen.”
That game and that comeback wasn’t the first time Nihill bent a situation to her will. She has become one of the conference’s best players despite her size and she has spent the past few months taking on another daunting challenge.
Before she arrived at Drexel, Nihill was a two-sport star at Cardinal O’Hara. She was the Delaware County Player of the Year in basketball and All-State in field hockey. Basketball was her love but her plan was to play field hockey her fifth year in college.
Nihill (above) has fit right in on the Dragons' field hockey squad, scoring four goals thus far. (Photo courtesy Sideline Photos/Drexel Athletics)
That might have seemed unrealistic to some. Crazy even. Athletes don’t just show up and play a Division I sport they’ve been absent from for four years. Except that’s what Nihill did. She joined the team over the summer and has appeared in every game.
“To me, it’s not surprising,” said Hendrixson, a fellow O’Hara grad. “Just knowing her and how ambitious she is as a person, it came as another activity to her. To everyone else this would be a major difference. She’s handling it like a beast. She’s awesome.”
Nihill started six of the first seven games for the field hockey team. O’Hara’s all-time leader in goals scored in her second game back and has four goals this season.
“It felt really good just because it was something I always wanted to do,” Nihill said. “It was a lot of fun, especially celebrating the goal with my team and my teammates. They’ve been really awesome at cheering me on and encouraging me.”
When Nihill made plans to return to field hockey, she couldn’t have imagined she’d still have basketball eligibility left. After starting 109 of 119 games during her four years, COVID has given her a fifth season.
These days she’s balancing morning field hockey practices with whatever time she can spare in the gym while staying under the NCAA time limit.
Once field hockey ends, Nihill will focus solely on hoops, though it's possible the two seasons might overlap if the field hockey team captures the CAA title on Nov. 7.
“The good thing about having her back as a fifth year, she knows what we’re doing and she’s done it,” Drexel basketball coach Amy Mallon said. “So I’m not worried about her and the understanding piece. It’s just more her time and her ability to manage it because she wants to be everywhere. If you know Hannah Nihill at all, I mean, she’s capable. I think if she says she’s going to do something, she finds a way to do it.”
Nihill was the CAA’s Defensive Player of the Year. She was all-conference first team and made the all-tournament team. She averaged a career-high 16.3 points, shot 37% from ‘3’, 75% from the line and made 65 steals. She’s 39 points from 1,000.
Those are the numbers and the accolades. They are only part of her contribution.
Hannah Nihill watches an early October Drexel women's basketball practice before a field hockey game that evening. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“To be her teammate is just so fun,” Hendrixson said. “She’s such a good person on and off the floor. She’s someone that you always want to be around. She has a great relationship with every single person on the team, which is such a great quality to have. She’ll do absolutely anything for anyone.”
Drexel has a loaded roster capable of making a run at a repeat. Keishana Washington, who had 30 points in the conference final and was tournament MVP, and Mariah Leonard return. Former Bucknell standout Tessa Brugler has arrived as a transfer.
This extra season is an unexpected gift for Nihill. One more chance to play her favorite sport at a high level.
“I think about it all the time,” she said. “How this year is a total blessing, no matter what the outcome is. I’m just excited to have this opportunity to play with all my teammates again and for my coaches. Just have fun with it.”
One reason Hendrixson, a 5-9 guard who was the Delco Player of the Year herself as a senior at O’Hara, chose Drexel was to keep playing with Nihill. They were a package deal.
The two overlapped for three high school seasons and this will be their fourth college season together. They were champions in the Philadelphia Catholic League and the CAA. No one understands what Nihill brings to the court better than Hendrixson.
“You always want to have her on your team,” Hendrixson said. “You never want to play against her.”