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Nicole Starkson’s return to softball couldn’t have worked out better. After taking two years off, the Bethany Lutheran College junior was, as of Friday, leading the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference in both RBIs and ERA.

Nicole Starkson was a junior at Mankato West High School when she knew her softball career would be ending soon.

Two more summers of travel ball sandwiched around her senior season with the Scarlets, and that would be it. That was the plan.

Starkson was happily retired and in her second year of college at Bethany Lutheran when the itch to play again started to go creep back.

“I decided after last spring,” the junior said. “We had wonderful weather, and one nice day I went to a game to watch them. I thought I might want to try it again. I decided in the summer.”

That decision couldn’t have worked out better for her — or Bethany.

Going into Friday night’s doubleheader against Northland at Rosemount (results were not available at deadline), Starkson was leading the Vikings in hitting and pitching.

She was batting .419 with eight doubles, three home runs and an Upper Midwest Athletic Conference-leading 17 RBIs. She was also leading the UMAC with a 2.08 ERA and was second in the conference with 74 strikeouts.

Those eye-popping numbers weren’t exactly what coach Renee Tatge was expecting when Starkson joined the Vikings last fall.

“I tried not to get my hopes up too much,” Tatge said. “She had been an awesome player (in high school), but you never know. You have to keep your expectations in check. But she’s come out and been everything I could have hoped for.”

Starkson is also surprised, especially by how well she’s been pitching. Twice this season she has been selected as the UMAC’s pitcher of the week.

“I hope it’s not a fluke,” she said.

When Starkson’s not pitching, Tatge has found a place for her in the field. Her bat has kept her in the lineup every game.

A a second-team All-State pick as a senior at West, Starkson plays with two of her old Scarlets teammates, junior outfielders Gena Chester and Rebecca Ludewig. Both of them respected Starkson’s decision to quit playing softball, but they also supported her when she returned to the field.

“I missed (playing) after two years,” said Starkson, an exercise science major. “I figured I should try it before it was too late. ...

“I don’t know if it’s because I took two years off, but it seems more fun.”

Starkson said that, given her success, she’s torn about whether or not taking the time off was the right decision.

“Yes and no,” she said. “I don’t (regret retiring) because I’ve realized how much I like the sport, and I might have taken that for granted before. At the same time, sometimes I wish I would have (come back) sooner because I enjoy it so much.”

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