NICOLLET — A .589 batting average, an ERA of .60, 163 batters sent down by strikeout.
But outweighing all those impressive feats Marah Hulke accomplished during her senior season of softball was helping Nicollet take home its first-ever state softball championship.
Hulke’s season, which included time at shortstop and pitcher, saw a continued climb in just about every statistical area from last season. In addition to her improved batting average, which jumped from .534 in 2021 to .589 this season, Hulke ended this season with 43 hits, 33 RBIs, five homers, three doubles, two triples, 32 runs scored and 11 stolen bases.
After a 10-3 record, 124 strikeouts and a 1.15 ERA in 79 innings last year, Hulke turned it up a notch this season and finished with an 11-1 record, a .60 ERA and 163 strikeouts in 81 2/3 innings.
Improving on last season’s incredible numbers seemed improbable, but Hulke did it. And that improvement ended up leading to the ultimate prize as Nicollet beat Moose Lake/Willow River 3-2 in eight innings to win the Class A state title on June 10 at Caswell Park.
Hulke ended up pitching five innings in relief of All-Journal teammate Hayley Selby in the state championship game and got the win without giving up a run.
“It doesn’t matter where I’m going, I’ll end up seeing someone and the first thing they’ll bring up is that we won the state championship, they’ll talk about the game,” Hulke said. “So it’s starting to set in more and I’m definitely starting to realize that there’s no better way we could have went out. My last-ever high school game, we go out with a win and on top of Class A.”
Hulke also finished her senior year as a four-time All-Conference, two-time All-State and three-time All-Section player and made the All-Tournament team at state this season. In addition to those accomplishments, Hulke was unanimously chosen as the All-Journal Softball Player of the Year for the second year in a row as voted on by The Journal’s sports staff.
“I started playing when I was really young,” Hulke said. “All the extra time I put in over the years, it didn’t matter if I was playing volleyball or basketball, I was always finding time to make time for softball and was putting in the extra practice and playing over 60 games in the summer when I could be doing other stuff. It just shows that all the time has paid off and it’s nice to get a few awards at the end of it.”
After the Raiders got a five-inning win on April 9 against Randolph, last season’s Class A champion and a third-place finisher this season at state, Hulke said she was convinced her team could finish the season as state champions.
“We played Randolph, who was the state champion last year, our second game of the season and we beat them 11-1,” Hulke said. “So that kind of set the tone right at the beginning of the season. We came out and played one of the best teams in the state, they ended up getting third at state again this year, so to come out and play them and play that good against them early in the season, we kind of got the mindset of, ‘We can really make this happen, we’ve just gotta go out and play our game.’
“And then later in the season, we picked up games against Belle Plaine and ended up beating them. They were a good team in Class AA, and then we also beat Cathedral during the regular season, and at that point I think we were No. 1 in state and they were the No. 2 team in state. So it was kind of, like, ‘If we can beat them, it kind of just shows that we can beat anyone in state.’”
Hulke split time again at pitcher this season with Selby, and the duo complimented each other well with a mix of styles.
“We’ve been pitching together on varsity since eighth grade,” Hulke said of Selby. “We kind of have off-set pitches, we don’t have the same style of pitching, so it definitely helps we have two aces. It doesn’t matter who is going to come out and pitch, we know that our defense is going to have our back. When she was at third base and I was pitching, I was always confident she was going to make the play, she was always going to be there. And just going out and knowing that if something did happen, I had someone else to lean on with pitching.”
Hulke also said her catcher Morgan Arndt improved a lot over last summer and it paid off in a big way for her and the team.
“Morgan definitely improved a lot from last year to this year,” Hulke said. “She had another year of experience and we’ve been working together for a long time, and we worked together this [past] winter, too. I would go in with my pitching coach and she would come in and she would always be willing to catch and she would be willing to work on catching drills. She improved her framing a bunch, which definitely helped me get some more strike calls and I could throw my other pitches then because I was ahead in the count.”
In addition to her catcher’s improvements, something else changed for Hulke from last season. It was something that helped her hold this year’s state softball championship plaque high in the air: an increased drive to lead.
“My freshman year I was starting on varsity and everything, so I was kind of just out there playing,” Hulke said. “Last year I took on more of a leadership role, I was one of our captains. But this year I really kind of took it upon myself, I wanted to lead us not only to a section championship and get us to state, but once we got to state I wanted to lead us to the state championship. So I kind of changed my mindset and changed it to, ‘If I just go out and play my game and do my best and do everything I can for the team, I’m going to lead the team in the right direction.’”
Nicollet fans will be happy to know Hulke plans to continue her softball career at Gustavus Adolphus College next year.
Hulke said Gusties head coach Coley Ries reached out to her last year and asked her about playing for the team in 2023. After being recruited by coach Ries and realizing the chance to continue her softball career in St. Peter close to home, it was too much for Hulke to pass up.
Hulke will be in good hands next year under coach Ries, a 2017 NCAA Division II national champion pitcher with the Minnesota State Mavericks.