SENECA – One year ago, Nicole Pihl had just graduated from Seneca High School and was looking forward to her freshman season as a member of the DePaul University softball team. No one could have told her what would happen to her in the next year, and if they did, she probably wouldn’t have believed them.
Pihl has had the time of her life in the past year, and is looking forward to more of the same in the next few years to come. That will happen when you step in and become a key contributor to one of the nation’s best softball programs right away.
Pihl, who was a two-time Morris Daily Herald Player of the Year (2011 and 2012), hit .279 for the Big East champion Blue Demons this season, finishing with 29 hits in 104 at-bats. She had three doubles, two triples, five home runs and 24 RBIs to finish with a .490 slugging percentage and even stole two bases in three attempts. She played in 49 of DePaul’s 55 games, starting 39 of them as designated hitter. Along the way, she was named to the Big East All-Tournament Team and earned a Big East Player of the Week award for the week of Feb. 24.
“That was crazy,” Pihl said about the Player of the Week honor in the season’s third week. “I was only hitting, not playing the field, but I hit out of my shoes that week. It was very exciting to do it that early in the season and I was very honored to be recognized.”
During that week, Pihl hit her first career home run in a game against UMass. The Marseilles native came off the bench as a pinch-hitter in a tie at 2 during the sixth inning and launched a two-run shot to bring in what eventually the winning runs in a 4-2 victory. In her next plate appearance, she hit a three-run home run in the first inning of DePaul’s 8-0, five-inning rout of UConn. Pihl also accounted for DePaul’s lone run in a 3-1 loss to James Madison, putting the Blue Demons up, 1-0, with a solo shot in the second inning. She was named to the NFCA Leadoff Classic All-Tournament Team after leading the team to a 4-1 record while providing seven RBIs and tying for the team-high with six hits and three homers in five games.
With a start like that, it was hard to keep Pihl from starting, and she had a spot for the rest of the year.
“I was just a DH this year,” she said. “But I was thankful to start anywhere. We have such a great lineup that I felt honored to be a part of it no matter what they asked me to do.”
While at Seneca, Pihl was also a pitcher, but she said her days in the circle are behind her.
“I am retired from pitching,” she said. “My form was never the best, and I had trouble throwing consistent strikes and I hit too many batters. At this level, that gets you in trouble real quick. Plus, my velocity was only in the low 60s, and here, everyone is throwing in the mid-to-upper 60s with great movement on pitches they can throw for strikes every time.
“I have enough to think about with just hitting. I am working to improve my fielding so I can play some first base, but again, I am just happy to be a part of the lineup anywhere.”
More than just fitting into the lineup at DePaul, Pihl, a health science major, made a quick transition to the hustle and bustle of both college and big city life at the same time.
“It’s quite a change going from living in Seneca to living in Lincoln Park in Chicago,” Pihl laughed. “But it was prettu fun. My roomate, Micah Fitzgerald, is also on the softball team and we are in one of the newer freshman dorms on campus, so it’s pretty nice. Actually, our suitemates are also on the softball team. They like to try and keep us together so we can help each other out as much as possible. Like, if we have to be up at 4:30 to get on the road for a trip to Louisville, we all have to be up. We can keep each other on focus for whatever we have to do, whether it’s go out to practice or doing our homework.
“We don’t have a lot of free time between school and softball, but when we do, it’s nice to walk around Lincoln Park and do some shopping or whatever. We went to Lincoln Park Zoo a few times, so that was fun. Some of my teammates like to go to the beach, but I didn’t really do that this year.”
To be sure, free time was at a premium for Pihl. The first six weeks of the softball season included two trips to Florida, a trip to Charleston, South Carolina, a trip to Las Vegas and a trip to Fullerton, California. Then, when the regular season was over and the Demons won the Big East regular season and tournament championships, they went to Lexington, Kentucky to play in the NCAA Regionals before finally losing a 2-of-3 series to Kentucky, which went on to beat UCLA in the Super Regionals and play in the College World Series. All this while taking a full load of classes that included lab courses in both biology and chemistry.
“I had around a 3.5 GPA this year,” she said. “I figured out the study habits that I need to have, and I know I will have to boost my GPA in order to get into grad school. But now that I know how to study better and to load up more on classes in the fall than the spring, I should be able to do that.”
Before she returns to DePaul, Pihl is playing for the Indiana Slammers with Blue Demon teammates Mary Connolly and Gena Lenti, as well as players that play collegiately for teams such as Louisville and University of Illinois-Chicago. She will also help instruct next Monday and Tuesday at Seneca coach Dan Stecken’s camp for girls entering grades 1-9.
“That will be fun,” Pihl said. “[Coal City native] Kirsten Verdun was someone I always looked up to when I was growing up, and she kind of became my big sister at DePaul. She let me know that someone from a small school could play here and be successful and that was a big help. Hopefully I will be able that kind of person for someone around here.”