PROPHETSTOWN — It is no coincidence that Erica Thulen’s freshman season was highlighted by the Erie-Prophetstown softball co-op’s first conference title.Stepping into the Panther lineup right away as the starting shortstop, Thulen’s work in the field and at the plate, where she batted .489, was a key factor in E-P earning a share of the Three Rivers Conference’s East Division crown with Peru St. Bede and Sterling Newman.
Their rosters hit by the loss of key personnel, the Rockridge and Orion softball teams still look to be among the best in the area this spring.
Buoyed by that success, the Erie High School sophomore wants to help her team achieve bigger and better things this spring.
“We have a lot of team goals this year, and one of them is definitely winning a regional title,” said this week’s Dispatch-Argus-QCOnline Area Pacesetter, who has sparked the Panthers to a 2-0 start with a torrid hitting display.
In opening-week victories over Annawan-Wethersfield and Ridgewood, Thulen went 6-for-9 at the plate with three extra-base hits, three runs scored and five RBIs. After going 4-for-4 with a triple, home run and three RBIs in a 9-3 win over A-W, she belted a two-run walk-off double to cap a wild 11-10 victory over Ridgewood.
“It feels really good to go out there and get those first two wins,” Thulen said. “We’ve been working really hard in practice, and it’s good to see that work pay off early. We definitely have some big goals for this season.”
The younger sister of former Panther shortstop and 2016 Erie graduate Stephanie Thulen, who is now playing Division I softball at Illinois State University, she felt no pressure to live up to her sibling’s accomplishments when she started her own varsity career.
“They made sure not to put that kind of pressure on me,’’ Thulen said of her coaches and teammates. “My freshman year, I was anxious for sure, and there were a little bit of nerves, but the seniors and other upperclassmen made me feel comfortable and a part of the team, so the transition was not that difficult.”
In fact, Thulen has embraced her older sister’s legacy, right down to wearing the same jersey number.
“It feels good to wear her number, No. 4,” she stated. “That kind of happened by accident. Coach (Roger) Ellerbrock was going through jerseys, and they didn’t have the one I really wanted at the time, which was No. 18, which (senior) Hannah Kolling wears now. He held up No. 4 and I was like, yeah, I want that. Now, I even wear it for travel ball.
“I definitely wanted to follow in Stephanie’s footsteps. She made such an impact on the program, so that was the route I wanted to go.”
Her torrid start at the plate has Thulen not only continuing along the route she blazed last year, but picking up speed as she goes along.
“Erica’s hitting the ball so much harder already, and I think she’s only going to get stronger before the end of the season,” said Ellerbrock. “Last year, she took it upon herself to learn how to play shortstop; she’s by trade a second or third baseman. She committed just four errors last year, which is remarkable.”
What would be even more remarkable for Thulen and her E-P teammates would be following up an outright TRAC East championship with a piece of postseason hardware.
After falling in the regional finals last May to eventual Class 2A third-place state finisher Morrison, the desire to win the program’s first regional crown since 2000 is stronger than ever.
“We want to put an end to that this year,” Thulen said of that postseason dry spell. “We want that regional title.”