By David Willis
---- — Nicole Ericson had dreamed of the at-bat for more than a year.
Last Monday, exactly 11 months and three weeks removed from the surgery that cost her the entire 2013 season and 22 months after her last game for Andover High, Ericson stepped to the plate for the at-bat she had played out countless times in her head.
“I definitely had the jitters,” she said. “I was very anxious. I swung and it just felt amazing. I could feel that it hit the sweet spot of the bat, I saw it fall in for a hit and all these emotions came rushing to me. I was so excited and so happy.”
After all of the pain, all of the rehab and all of the waiting, Ericson was back.
In February 2013, Ericson suffered a torn ACL while competing for the Andover ski team, requiring surgery that meant the end of her junior softball season.
So when the spring arrived this season, nothing was going to hold the now-Golden Warrior senior tri-captain back.
“She has fire in her eyes out there,” Warriors coach Steve Tisbert said. “It was awful for her to miss last season. She was a great leader, but it hurt her. It was a long, long process to get back, but now that she has, she can’t wait to play and she wants to excel.”
Ericson has been in the lineup for each of Andover’s first four games this season, either in the outfield or as designated hitter, including a 2-for-2, three-run day against North Andover.
“All Nicole wanted last year was to be out there with us,” said Mimi Olney, one of the other tri-captains along with Laura McNaughton. “She is so great to have on this team because she is so positive, knows the game so well and is a great hitter.”
Ericson long ago established herself as a stalwart on the Golden Warrior softball team, earning the starting job in center field as a freshman.
“I walked into tryouts as a freshman thinking I would maybe make the JV team,” she said. “But I worked hard and wanted to show I had a passion for the sport and I wanted to be there. I ended up making the varsity team and, needless to say, I was pretty scared.”
Ericson proved she belonged as a freshman. She hit .328, scored 15 runs and drove in five runs in her first season. A year later, she continued to star, finishing with a .341 batting average, 19 runs scored and 14 RBIs.
The outfielder planned to keep that success going last spring — but before the snow had melted, her junior season was over.
“I was skiing and came around a gate,” she recalled. “The conditions were a little rough. I caught an edge, my ski stuck in the snow and my body went one way and my knee went another. I heard a loud ‘pop.’
“I had some shooting pain, but I didn’t want to accept that it was real, so I got up and finished the race. I got to the bottom and realized how much it hurt. When I couldn’t put any weight on it, I knew I was in trouble.”
Ericson had suffered a torn ACL and underwent surgery on April 10, 2013.
“I was devastated,” she said. “I cried. I was hurt, obviously physically, but also mentally and emotionally. I love softball, so it was so heartbreaking to be out. I was stuck on my couch most of the day and it was rough.”
Unable to play, Ericson set her sights on helping the team the only way she could.
“If we had a true leader last season, it was Nicole,” Tisbert said. “She kept everyone focused. She was an assistant coach. She explained to players what they should be doing, and would come to us and ask if we should try things. She also led the cheers.”
Three weeks following her surgery, Ericson began light physical therapy, and after six weeks, the therapy increased in intensity with the addition of weights. Six months later, she was allowed to run again. A month after that, the now Andover High senior had the chance to compete again, albeit in a fun exhibition.
“I got to play in the Powder Puff football game,” she said with a laugh. “That was a huge milestone that I could compete again. I had to be very careful, but it was great.”
But it was softball that was her true goal, and she began easing herself back into the sport at clinics. Finally, when the Andover High season kicked off, Ericson was back on the diamond.
“I’m not sure there is anyone around that worked as hard as Nicole did to be ready for this season,” Tisbert said. “She would be out there doing hitting drills on one leg.
“Watching her play the first game, I was smiling ear to ear. The ball was just flying off of her bat. If we were playing at home, I think one would have been a home run.”
Ericson now hopes to put together one last memorable season before heading off to play college softball.
“I can’t even explain how happy I am to be out there with my teammates,” she said. “They mean everything to me. I feel like we have a very good team and I think we can win some games and have fun.”
Her fellow tri-captains agree this could be a special season.
“I am really pleased with how we are playing,” McNaughton said. “I think that we have a lot of talent, and we have a very strong defense. We are versatile and I think we believe in each other.”
ERICSON A TERRIER
Nicole Ericson’s first meeting with Boston University softball coach Kathryn Gleason was far from ideal.
“My first meeting with her was three days after my injury,” Ericson said. “I walked in on crutches, so it was not the best first impression. But I think it showed how much I wanted to do it.”
Gleason may have only seen Ericson play at a BU softball clinic, but they stayed in touch. It was enough to offer her a spot on the team as a recruited walk-on.
“I can’t wait, Ericson said. “It is so exciting to play at that level. I love the sport so much, and there isn’t anything I would rather be doing.”