Shelby Nicholson was worried.
She’d been summoned out of class to the principal’s office, and she wasn’t sure why. It didn’t help that along the way into Ronnie Garner’s office she passed one of Hale County High School’s staff members, and as she walked by he teased, “Eww. You’re in trouble.”
Even when you’re an honor student, as Nicholson is, his words made her heart race a little faster. Her mind danced with things the principal might be wanting to discuss. You don’t get called out of class unless it’s bad, she’d decided.
She was wrong.
Garner had called her in to let her know she had been selected as a regional winner for the Bryant-Jordan AHSAA Class 3A, Region 4, Student Achievement award.
Even better, Nicholson would learn, one of her Wildcats softball teammates, Kelsie Gilliam, was also among the regional honorees for Class 3A. She won the Bryant-Jordan Scholar Athlete Award.
The awards are co-sponsored by the Bryant-Jordan Foundation in conjunction with the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame and the Alabama High School Athletic Association. Principals at the state’s high schools nominate student-athletes from the school’s pool of athletes in all sports. Named in honor of the late Paul W. “Bear” Bryant and Ralph “Shug” Jordan, these awards are considered among the state’s top prep honors.
In the end, eight student-athletes apiece from AHSAA Classes 1A through 6A and four in Class 7A, are named their class’s Region Scholar Athlete of the year.
Eight more in each of the six classes, four in Class 7A, are named their region’s Student Achievement Award recipient. That means 52 out of the entire state’s pool of boys and girls high school athletes are named region scholars, and 52 are region Student Achievement winners.
Each regional recipient receives a scholarship of $3,000. That’s a total of 104 seniors who will receive that base amount. Seven class winners, a total of 14, receive a total of $6,500 in scholarship.
Those winners are drawn from the regional winners. And, though they won’t be announced until next month, the winners of the Larry D. Striplin, Jr., Scholar Athlete of the Year and the Ken and Betty Joy Blakenship Student Achievement Award will be awarded an additional $4,000 in scholarship.
Gilliam and Nicholson were among seven athletes from West Alabama to be named regional winners. Also in Class 3A are Winfield track and field athlete Kaylee Chism (scholar athlete) and Lamar County volleyball player Macy Williams (student achievement.) Fayette County’s Carter Sanford, a track and field standout is a scholar-athlete winner in Class 4A, and two athletes from Demopolis were honored in 5A, including distance athlete Jensen Hammons (scholar athlete) and football player Andrew Thornton (student achievement.)
Royce Brehm is Hale County’s softball coach. He’s also Gilliam’s stepfather. He says the two are classic examples of his entire team’s makeup.
“We’re real proud of them,” Brehm said of landing two players on the awards list, “but we really, really set a high standard for academics in our program. Our overall team GPA is just a tick under 3.8. So we take it really serious. We have 36 girls in our program, and I check the grades of every one of them, from seventh grade all the way up to senior. We stay on them pretty hard, but it’s not really that hard a job for me to make sure that they are all doing what they’re supposed to do. They just do it. Kelsie will graduate third in her class. Shelby just came back this year after transferring to Gulf Shores and transferred back here, so we just got her back.
“It’s pretty impressive,” Brehm said. “It’s a really big deal for us because not only is it an academic honor but, especially in Shelby’s case, the character of that young lady is pretty impressive with all the things that she’s gone through. It’s a big deal for us. We’re really honored about what they’ve done.”
Nicholson is honored for achievement and, particularly in her case, her ability to rise and shine while facing adversity and heartache. She has been forced to move a couple of times because of family situations and has attended three different schools in three different cities the past few years. Her grandmother, who had been her primary caretaker the last few years, recently passed away. That situation brought her back, along with her twin sister and softball teammate Skylar, back to Moundville. Her senior season found her flourishing in softball and also flourishing in the classroom. She’s taking an AP class and works on the school’s yearbook staff. At Gulf Shores High, she and her teammates were softball regional finalists.
“Shelby, she’s that kind of player who does everything that we ask her to do. She plays a lot of roles on our team, and whatever role we give her, she smiles. She takes every role we give her very seriously. You have some people who don’t want to take minor roles in our program. But every minor role we give her, she makes major. She makes the most of it. She’s always willing to help anybody. She’s just that kind of person. She’s really good girl to have around,” Brehm said.
“Kelsie is our team leader. She’s been a starter for the varsity program since the seventh grade. Our catcher. Sometimes we wish we could get her out from behind the plate because she such a solid contender everywhere. I’m kind of biased because she lives in my house--she’s my little girl--but she’s just a solid person.”
Gilliam has signed to play softball at the University of West Alabama next season. She was all-state as a sophomore. Off the field she is vice president of Hale County’s National Honor Society and a senior representative in the Student Government Association. She also volunteers as a peer helper from other students.
Like many students around the state and country, her senior year has been unprecedented because of COVID-19. Her softball season was just beginning when Alabama’s schools were placed on hiatus. The Wildcats, because of that mandate and record-setting rain accumulation in West Alabama, have yet to play a home game this season.
On top of that, the banquet where she and Nicholson were to be honored at the Sheraton in Birmingham on April 13, has been canceled. Instead, the ceremony, without the winners and guests, will be broadcast on the AHSAA TV Network and the NFHS Network and online through www.bryantjordan.org, www.ahsaa.com and www.ashof.org. The presentation will also include yet-to-be-announced winners of the Herman L. “Bubba” Scott Coaching Scholarship, Dr. Gaylon McCollough Medical Scholarship, Alabama “A” Club Educational & Charitable Foundation Scholarships, Auburn Football Lettermen Club Scholarships, and United Methodist Children’s Home Scholarships.
“I was looking forward to the banquet because I‘ve heard nothing but great comments about it and how honorable it is to be there with all the top athletes and academic performers all over Alabama, people I don’t personally know but would get to know and get to experience that with them,” Gilliam said.
“It’s definitely hard because my school has early release, so I don’t get to see a majority of my classmates as much as I would like to, and this COVID-19 is hindering us from being together even more and, possibly for right now, postponing my senior season and possibly ending it. It’s definitely hard because you don’t get to make those memories with your classmates that you’d like to or that other senior classes had the chance to. It’s heartbreaking because this could be the last time that you ever see your classmates. I’m going to be moving to Livingston to go to West Alabama, and I don’t know what their future plans are. I don’t get to see my closest friends. There are some I may never get to see again.
“You just have to look at your future and know God always has a plan and He‘s over this Corona virus pandemic. You just have to stay positive and know that it’s all going to work out in the end and this is going to be part of our story,” Gilliam said.
“I was looking forward to the banquet and our season,” Nicholson said. “We haven’t gotten to play many games because of all the rain. Most everyone else has gotten to have a Senior Night, but not us. And now we don’t know if we are even going to be able to get to play after we get back (to school). I’m spending this time hitting. We have a (batting) cage at our house. And I’ve been doing some drills. We have a (fielding) net that I practice on things like ground balls.”
Nicholson is planning on attending Shelton State and taking business classes. Ultimately, her dream is to go to Auburn and major in landscape design. Meanwhile, she is learning to cope with loss, both in her personal life and at school.
And that makes her appreciate earning this award even more.
“Overcoming a lot of difficulties in my life and still striving to do my best, no matter what I’m going through myself makes this mean a lot,” Nicholson said. “I’m trying to live like my grandmother always told me to do, to give everything my 100 percent or more and doing things that would make her proud.”
Both are happy for one another and that they are experiencing these honors together.
“It’s so cool,” said Gilliam.
“It was also our friend Ryleigh Hallman. She didn’t make it all the way through, but she was also honored,” Nicholson said. “When Kelsie and I found out, we congratulated each other. And Ryleigh, who also plays softball with us, congratulated us and that meant a lot. She deserved to win, too.
“It’s amazing how much things can change but still be better at the same time and not be as bad as you think it could be,” Nicholson said.