KEARNEY — Nicole Spykstra’s experience in college softball is unlike most student-athletes.
Spykstra started her college career at the University of Nebraska at Kearney in 2016-17. After an All-MIAA season, she elected to transfer to Division I New Mexico State University. She played sparingly at NMSU and transferred after the season, landing at a familiar place — UNK.
“Holly Carnes was always good to me,” Spykstra said. “I loved her as a coach, and I thought it would be really nice to come back and just relive everything. I had a great experience as a freshman.”
Spykstra was an honorable mention All-MIAA player as a freshman at UNK. She played exclusively in center field and batted in the middle of the Lopers’ lineup. She hit .347 with 13 doubles, one triple, one home run and 21 RBIs in 56 games.
The success she had as a freshman motivated her to take a step up and chase her dream of playing at the Division I level. She returned closer to her Chandler, Ariz., home to attended NMSU.
She didn’t adjust to the Division I level like she anticipated, though. She was a reserve and played in only 10 games. She batted .154 with four runs scored and one RBI.
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Spykstra enjoyed her time at NMSU but said the coaching staff wasn’t what she had hoped for.
The unnatural fit with the coaches caused her to transfer for the second year in a row. The Lopers welcomed her back, knowing the potential effect she could make after sitting out a season due to the transfer rules.
Spykstra was projected to start at third base next season under Carnes before athletic director Marc Bauer opted to replace Carnes at the conclusion of last season. Although Spykstra’s role on next year’s team is unknown, she’s dedicating time in the offseason to weight training and rehabbing her injured shoulder in preparation for whatever the new coaching staff asks of her.
“I just need to be mentally ready and just go out there and do what I love to do,” Spykstra said. “That’s what I did my freshman year. I did my own thing and tried to do what I could to help my team because I don’t want to let them down. I want to be the best teammate and person I can be.”
Spykstra had a notable prep career and displayed flashes of that potential her freshman season with the Lopers. Her success on the diamond is impressive, especially since she’s had to overcome hearing loss in both ears.
When Spykstra was 4 years old, she said her parents discovered that she was deaf in both ears. She isn’t “completely deaf” but wears hearing aids, she said.
Although hearing the ball off the bat is a key component to reading the ball when playing defense, Spykstra said it hasn’t been an issue for her. She credits her teammates for assisting her when she’s in the field.
“Teammates are super helpful with hearing the coaches from across the field,” Spykstra said. “I have always adjusted well to it. It’s never been a huge problem. It’s taught me to be more of a visual person. I see the ball off the bat better.”
The Lopers (20-24, 12-14 MIAA) finished 10th in the MIAA standings last season. It was their best season since 2012, but they failed to qualify for the conference tournament for the seventh consecutive year.
The program’s lack of consistency and winning pedigree determined Carnes’ fate as the Lopers’ coach. It was Bauer’s first change as UNK’s permanent athletic director.
The Lopers return all but two starters from last year’s team, including outfielder Carlee Liesch, who was named MIAA Freshman of the Year after hitting .458 with seven home runs and 18 RBIs.
Spykstra believes the program is headed in the right direction from a competitiveness standpoint, even with the coaching change.
“The girls are really dedicated to making the team better,” Spykstra said. “Especially since I sat out, it was cool to see my teammates develop a chemistry. I’m super excited to be a part of it.”