Hulke delivers for Gusties
But not every collegiate athlete can expect to play during their freshman season.
Hulke is an exception, and a good one at that.
The 2022 Nicollet High School grad was already viewed as a steady arm for the Gusties early in the 2023 college season, getting playing time right away in a relief role.
“Coming in when I was kind of getting recruited, she [head coach Coley (Ries) Welter] told me I was more than likely going to get some innings in the circle as a true freshman, which is kind of what I was looking for in a program,” Hulke said. “I was hoping to get a little bit of an opportunity starting off the bat and kind of work my way up and be able to play more as I got older.”
But when the Gustavus coaching staff saw the success Hulke was having during the year, Hulke earned a spot in the starting rotation alongside junior ace Piper Otto and freshman Maizie Anderson.
“Starting in the beginning of the season, I was leaned on more as a relief pitcher just because we were getting ready, getting started in the season, no one was really pitching a full game yet,” Hulke said. “And then as we started getting into conference play and everyone was pitching well, we kind of started a pitching rotation between us three. Two of us would start the two games, and then the next time we played, it would be two different people starting the game. So it’s been different. Obviously, in high school I was leaned on as one of our starting pitchers, but coming into a college program and right away [I was] asked to step up and perform at a high level.”
Hulke, a key member of the 2022 Class A State Softball Champion Nicollet Raiders, made her Gusties pitching debut in relief of Otto on Feb. 25. The Gusties ended up being shut out that game 8-0 by Coe College, currently the No. 2-ranked DIII team in Region IX. But it was the start of a new chapter for Hulke at a higher level of play.
Hulke allowed three runs in 2 1/3 innings of relief against Coe, but it was far from a season preview of what to expect from the freshman and her team. The Gusties finished the regular season 23-17 overall last week with a pair of doubleheader wins at home over Martin Luther College.
Hulke earned a shutout win in Game 2 of that doubleheader, lowering her season ERA to 2.33 as a result. She also finished the regular season with a 4-4 record in 51 innings, allowing 47 hits and 30 walks while striking out 30.
Hulke’s senior year of pitching for the Raiders saw her set several records on the way to winning the program’s first-ever state title. She finished the season with a .60 ERA and 163 strikeouts in 81 2/3 innings.
While she still had success her freshman year of college, Hulke said she’s had to adapt to a smaller strike zone.
“In high school, you could sometimes get away with throwing a pitch a couple of inches off the plate and still get it called as a strike, but then when you get to college, it has to be over the plate,” she said. “And the hitters are just a lot smarter. In high school, I got a lot of people to chase at my rise ball and even my curveball when I could throw them out of the zone and I was still getting them to swing at it for strikes. But when you get to college level, everyone’s a lot smarter and they know what pitches they’re looking for, so I’ve had to learn to adjust to throw pitches a lot more over the plate and just allow my defense to make the plays.”
Another adjustment for Hulke during her freshman year of college comes with the subtraction of one area of her game that she had much success in during high school: hitting.
Hulke took the batter’s box just once during her freshman season with the Gusties and she was held without a hit during that at-bat. In high school, Hulke was a career .500 hitter and also had 14 homers and 96 RBIs. She also finished her senior year with the Raiders with a .589 batting average and her second consecutive All-Journal Softball Player of the Year honor.
“I definitely do miss hitting,” Hulke said. “In practice, I get to do all the hitting stations, I get to hit live in practice, I’ve still kept up with hitting and stuff. I wish I could hit in the game, but it makes sense with how the pitching works. And our other two pitchers don’t hit, so that makes it a little more difficult for me being a pitcher and also a hitter, because if they started and they’re not in the hitting lineup and I come in, I’m not going to be able to hit. So it’s definitely been different adjusting to not being able to hit, but I’ve just kept working on it and I’m hoping sometime in the next three years I’ll get the opportunity to start hitting again in games.”
Hulke said she’s been learning a lot from the Gustavus coaching staff, which consists of Welter, Justine Schultz, John Ries and Grace Viland. Otto, the veteran pitcher of the Gusties, has also been helpful to Hulke.
“I’ve definitely learned a lot from Piper,” Hulke said. “When we started in the spring and we were inside, us pitchers spent a lot of time together getting to know each other. We sometimes even catch for each other in practice if our catchers are busy doing something else, so we’ve definitely created a very close relationship and she’s just always been there to watch my pitches. If she sees something that she thinks I should change or sees something that would allow my pitches to work better, she’s always there to help us and just give us confidence in the game. She tells us that we’re doing good, what to look for in the hitters and just has definitely been a very good role model for me.”
As she wraps up her first year of college softball, Hulke may have more chances to check out her high school team in the Section 2A playoffs. The Raiders are putting runs on the board this season, but after graduating the team’s starting pitchers in Hulke and Hayley Selby, along with a host of other starting players in the infield, the Raiders have had some bumps in the road early on in the year.
“I’ve been in contact with them, my teammates that I played with last year, and just told them to keep their head up, keep working hard and once you get to sections, you never know what’s going to happen,” Hulke said. “We returned quite a bit of our lineup, and they’re all solid hitters, so it’s good to see them continuing to hit the ball well. But, when you lose your two starting pitchers for, like, the last four years, you have to develop someone new. So I think everyone knew pitching was going to be a struggle, but I’ve kept in contact with the ones who have been pitching to just keep working hard and rely on their defense. And, obviously, not all of the people playing defense are playing where they played in the field last year, so there are some new people out there. But I think as they just continue playing and get more comfortable in their positions, the season will continue improving for them.”
Off the field, Hulke said she’s enjoying the Gustavus campus.
“I really like the campus, I like that everything’s close together, it’s not that far of a walk from one end of the campus to the other,” she said. “The class sizes are relatively small, it’s kind of similar to like what it was in high school, which is what I was looking for. I didn’t want to go to a really big school and have lecture halls with 200-some people in it. So most of my classes have between like 20 and 30 people, so it’s nice I get to know everyone in the class and talk to the professors on a one-on-one level, so that’s really nice.”
While she continues to learn and grow academically at Gustavus, Hulke will continue to learn and grow as a pitcher and player for the Gusties. But if her high school career is any indication of how her college career will go, bigger and better things could await the Gusties.