A first-generation American from Brooklyn, Jeff Nikocaj nonetheless had a foreign feeling when he moved to Johnson City as a child in the late 1980s.
But he found many soccer teammates and coaches with similar backgrounds, and before they left Science Hill, the Hilltoppers spent five weeks as the No. 1 team in the nation.
Nikocaj was a 6-foot-2 junior forward when the ’Toppers were ranked No. 1 in USA Today in 1996. With talented teammates such as Antony Farrace, Science Hill scored triple-digit goals and allowed single-digit goals while compiling a striking 20-0-1 record. Coach Charlie Carter said the tie was to a top-five team from Virginia Beach.
Carter and assistant Tony Farrace, who’d coached Science Hill’s nucleus on the club level since they were 9 and 10 years old, provided an effective good-cop, bad-cop chemistry. Farrace offered the tough love.
“Tony was like a second father to me,” Nikocaj said. “A lot of the players on those teams for at least a five- or six-year span went through the teachings of Tony with years of club soccer and everything else. So the reason he was like that was because he was able to. We understood.
“Tony yelled at you because he knew that you could do something. It was easy for him to play that role, especially because he was Italian and we had so many foreigners on those teams. It was nothing to us. There was always good intentions. … And Coach Carter, I mean you can’t have two guys always yelling, so of course he had to play the role of being nice. … They definitely did (have good chemistry).”
The talented Nikocaj could make a coach look smart. He scored 20 of Science Hill’s 101 goals and assisted three others as a freshman. His sophomore season he made the All-State tournament team and was Co-Offensive Player of the Year in the district with older teammate Tino Diaz.
“And Jeff was a junior when that 1996 team was ranked No. 1 for five weeks,” Carter said. “The only non-senior that played on that team was Jeff Nikocaj, and he played because he was that good.”
Nikocaj was a two-time All-American at NCAA Division II Francis Marion University. He had a career-high five hat tricks there and still holds the season records for goals with 20 (twice) and points (49), and career marks for shots (275), goals (68) and points (162). He was a two-time All-American, and went on to play professionally in Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio in MLS’s version of triple-A.
“Antony Farrace was one of the best players I’ve ever played with, even at the college level or professional level,” Nikocaj said. “I mean he was unbelievable. Bar none, Antony was one of the best players I’ve ever seen in my life. He was the backbone of the whole team.”
Farrace was much of the reason Science Hill dominated possession against Germantown Houston in the 1996 state championship game in Chattanooga – not that it translated into victory. Nikocaj is still digesting the heartbreaking 1-0 defeat.
“That state championship was something that left a very sour taste in my mouth for years – to this day, especially because of how hard we’d worked the whole year,” he said. “I mean I can use a thousand words to tell you how I feel about it, but nothing would do it any justice. … Things that were happening you would never again see happening – like the ball hitting the goalie, then hitting the post and hitting the goalie again. It was tough, especially toward the end of the game when it started to sink in that it wasn’t gonna happen. We’d worked so hard.”
Unfortunately, that loss was put in perspective some 10 years later, when Nikocaj’s younger brother Sehat died unexpectedly at the age of 25. Jeff was two years older, and the sibling rivalry made him the player he was.
“There was no giving up between me and him,” Nikocaj said with an affectionate chuckle. “It was always a competition … a constant push. You talk about bumping heads. Being that close in age, it’s going to make an atmosphere of ‘I’m better than you.’ The younger one’s always trying to knock out the older one … and break apart that pedestal that’s under his foot.
“He was really the person that ignited my athletic career. We used to run, we used to kick – everything – and then we’d play each other one on one. It was constant competition for like 15 years. There’s nothing that compared to that, and I wouldn’t have gotten to where I did without that. The relationship that we had to push each other was not something that you find very often.”
Nor is the caliber of player it helped Jeff become. Carter concluded a career that spanned nearly two decades after Jeff’s senior season in 1997, and he can still see Jeff finding the net with pace and precision from 30-35 yards out.
“Jeff was tall and skinny with a good, strong kick and a great shot,” Carter said. “That was the best team in the state in ’96, and although we didn’t end up winning the state, a lot of people told me which team they thought was the best and which one had the best players. Suffice it to say, Jeff Nikocaj was one of the best players to come through in my 17 years coaching here.”
Hilltoppers soccer was a brotherhood.
“We had like 10 sets of brothers,” Nikocaj said. “All of the older brothers were a team and, basically, all of the younger brothers were a team – and they did well. … That whole team was quite unique. We’d all been playing together since we were like 10 years old. The bond and the unity was quite special.”