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New Jersey Ace

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by Angela Garvin
Photos by Janssen Photography

Sometimes we end up in places we never expect. That is exactly what happened to Nicole DeKok, a senior at Hillcrest Lutheran Academy. Although she knew people that had attended the school over the years, including her mother who graduated from Hillcrest in 1988, Nicole did not have any plans to leave New Jersey and head west to Minnesota for the second half of her high school career.

That is until she attended “teen week” at Tuscarora, a Christian Conference Center located in Mount Bethel, Penn. “I felt like I needed to put my life towards God, focus everything on Him,” recalls DeKok. It was here she realized one of the best places to do that was at Hillcrest. Nicole felt like this was where God wanted her to be. He was directing her there.

After a few visits to the school and talking with her parents, she made the decision to apply to Hillcrest. She was accepted and began classes in the fall of 2015 as a junior.

Instead of living in the dorms like most out-of-state Hillcrest students do, Nicole has been able to live with her grandparents who reside in Fergus Falls. Having that family connection and support has made it easier being away from her parents, her sister Amanda, and her brother Sean.

Attending a new and much smaller school in the Midwest is definitely an adjustment, but thankfully it didn’t mean giving up her passion: softball.
Since childhood, Nicole has focused significant time and energy into the game of softball. “It has been my life for as long as I can remember; pretty much all year round.” One of her biggest supporters is her father, Matt, who also happens to be the coach for the summer softball travel team she has played with for several years back in New Jersey. “I’ve been playing on the same team, with the same people for a long time. It’s awesome and I love it so much.”

When she joined that travel team, she got to choose her number. She was very proud to be able to choose the number 14; her dad’s number. Although some might find it challenging being coached by a parent, Nicole and her father are quite a team and have really bonded over their mutual love for the sport.

“I think Nicole would agree that we have always had a very good father/daughter and coach/player relationship,” Nicole’s father, Matt, said. “The overwhelming majority of the time we love being around each other on the fields. She still insists on driving home with me after every game, so she must not mind hearing my coaching thoughts and opinions of the game or her performance too much!”

Over the years, as any dedicated athlete would, Nicole has put a great deal of effort into fine-tuning and improving her skills in softball. She trains in the off-season, participates in scrimmages and tournaments, and has spent five years taking pitching lessons.

“Nicole was methodical in her softball growth the first few years,” her father said. “It wasn’t until the fourth year of travel softball in 2012, that I knew she was turning into a really talented player with a lot of potential. She became much more focused and intense with her practices and workouts and it translated to better performances on the field.”

With all her experience in softball before enrolling at Hillcrest, along with the coaching she received from her father, Nicole is a natural leader for her high school team. This responsibility is not one she takes lightly. “We just really communicate a lot,” she said. “We can point things out to each other. Since there are so many brand-new people each year because Hillcrest is so small, we often have a brand-new team. It gives us a chance to build each other up and be able to come together and enjoy the game.”

Nicole is hoping to recruit additional Hillcrest peers for the coming softball season. “I hope to help them, come behind them and lift them up… and praise God in the process.”

As the softball coach at Hillcrest, Craig Nersten highly values what Nicole brings to the team. “One of the things I’ve come to appreciate about Nicole is her ability to keep her composure, especially while pitching,” he said. “It would be really easy for a player of Nicole’s caliber to get frustrated when things don’t go well for the team. But Nicole has resisted blaming other players and has made every effort to make sure she and her teammates take care of business play after play. Nicole plays every moment to the best of her abilities. Teammates recognize this and they definitely follow her.”

Nicole broke the Hillcrest single season strikeout record for pitchers in 2016 with a total of 122. She was also awarded the 2016 Pheasant Conference Pitcher of the Year, was named all conference, and is a AAA winner.

Going from a school of roughly 3,000 kids to 200 has been an adjustment for Nicole, but you can tell how much she loves Hillcrest by the smile on her face when she talks about it. “I’m blown away by how awesome it is and how friendly people are,” Nicole said. Her first day people were introducing themselves to her and making her feel welcome, unlike her experience back home. “I have a lot of close friends here and can really hang out with anyone. We’re all such a family here.”

Nicole’s extracurricular interests don’t begin and end with softball. She is a member of the concert choir, the National Honor Society, and volunteers with Key Club to help members of the community. She also loves spending time with her friends and supporting her schoolmates at Hillcrest athletic events.

Nicole also enjoys many of her classes at Hillcrest, listing the Philosophy & Religion class—taught by Gregg Preston—she took her junior year as one of her favorites. “We got to read a lot of really great books and have some awesome discussions. This year I have the book of Mark with him which is great too. His classes are always super fun. Mr. Preston is an awesome teacher.” She has also been able to take college algebra as a dual enrollment class. As you can tell, she’s a motivated and well-rounded student.

This summer will serve as the final year Nicole will be able to play on her travel softball team as she and many of her teammates will be preparing to leave for college. Although the excitement of the next chapter awaits, she is looking forward to being able to play together as a group one last time. “We just want to play and enjoy the time we have left together.”

Nicole has applied to and been accepted to several colleges, but she is still weighing her future options. “I really want to go to a Christian college, and just to be able to stay in this kind of environment I have had here. Hillcrest has already helped me grow so much, but I know I have so much more I can learn.”