An original home town hero Erin Rethlake
By The Den's Mike Rice
Erin Rethlake grew up watching her dad Troy wreaking havoc on the softball fields of Huntington County.
Troy was a standout men’s fast pitch player and his daughter rarely, if ever, missed a pitch or an at bat.
While she was still at the age where movie tickets came at half price, restaurant meals were plucked from the kids menu and family road trips meant she’d be racking up frequent booster seat miles, it started becoming clear, much like the apple, the softball didn’t fall far from the tree.
Most 4-year old kids spend their last summer of preschool freedom skipping rocks, chasing butterflies or playing hide and go seek, not Erin spent hers throwing.
It was in the barn yard of the Rethlake home that Erin first began to mimic the moves of her dad and his teammates.
With a chuckle, Erin explained to us how she was blessed with “big hands” and could so readily handle the full-sized softballs at such an early age.
Like cork centered candies escaping their pinata prison, one ball after another flew from the young Rethlake’s hand before thudding against the barn wall.
A few summer’s later, buoyed by Erin’s continued interest Troy became Obi Wan to her Luke, passing along as much pitching know how as he could to his daughter.
For most six-year olds, listening to their parents ranks somewhere between eating a second helping of Brussel sprouts and having a cavity filled on the list of things you never willingly do.
Much to the pleasure of the softball gods, Erin was not like most six-year olds.
Her softball career began in earnest the following year when Erin started prowling the softball fields of Homier Park.
Even though she was still just seven years old, Erin’s natural talent and hard work shined through. It was soon obvious, to even the most casual observer, her talent level was significantly more advanced than that of her youthful peers.
Looking to challenge their daughter and push her development to new levels, Troy and Mindy (Erin’s mom) signed Erin up for double duty, adding travel ball to her resume, the next season.
It would not be long before her pitching exploits became the stuff of legends.
It was common to see opposing rec league batters, often 2-3 years older than Erin, scurry back to the dugout with a smile on their face, even though they’d just struck out on three pitches.
Simply mustering up the nerve to remain in the batter’s box against a high octane Rethlake fastball earned a player instant dugout cred.
That early success carried over to the travel circuit. By the time she was a high school freshman, Erin was playing on elite gold level softball squads, competing with and against players from all over the country.
When a story, still in its relative infancy, bares the triumphs and recognition that Erin’s did, it’s easy to see how its author could become jaded.
Troy ensured that never happened to Erin.
He made sure “I never felt like I was different.” Erin said, while crediting her dad for keeping her grounded.
Volleyball, track and basketball were unique allies in her quest to remain levelheaded, as well.
Other sports were “a challenge”, Erin conveyed, and every battle fought in those pastimes served as a reminder to never take softball for granted.
As she approached high school and the demands on her time began to grow, Erin scaled back her athletic agenda, focusing on softball and basketball at Huntington North.
Her hardwood career would be short lived, however.
After suffering an unfortunate knee injury her freshman season, Erin was faced with the realization another basketball related affliction could derail her softball dreams, which were growing bigger by the day.
Outstanding play in college exposure tournaments and a blossoming high school career kick started the NCAA recruitment process and scribbled the proverbial writing on the wall.
Like a lot of Indiana kids, Erin grew up loving basketball. While she admitted that made leaving it behind “kind of tough”, knowing it was the right decision for her future made it “very easy” at the same time.
With her cross hairs trained solely on softball, her high school career accelerated from its already breakneck pace.
A runner-up finish in the IHSAA state tourney her sophomore year was coupled with Erin wrapping up the recruiting war, by making a formal decision on where she would be continuing her athletic and academic career.
Over 40 schools sought her visit to their campus, in hopes of enticing her to commit to attending.
Since she was still an underclassmen, any visit Erin took was classified as an “unofficial visit”, meaning her parents had to undertake the financial burden of each trip.
After talking with her parents and travel coach, Kim Clay, the 15-year-old slowly whittled down the daunting list. When it was all said and done, North Carolina, Kentucky and Michigan landed spots on the visitation itinerary
Each school possessed qualities the highly prized recruit liked.
With a smile, she recalled how “North Carolina was warm” and was a program headed in the right direction. Kentucky had an SEC pedigree and a coach she immediately hit it off with. Michigan was a former national title winner and was the closest to home.
Making such an important commitment so early in high school “is hard, but necessary”, as Erin put it. Every day an athlete puts the outcome off is another day for opportunities to be gobbled up by other players.
With multiple visits under her belt and hundreds of miles on the family car, Erin shaved the list of contenders to one. While it appeared, the hard part was over, there was still one obstacle to climb.
She revealed to us that as she sat in the office of her Academic Adviser, preparing to phone the surviving school, she developed a case of “the nervous shakes”.
While her trembling hands likely made it a bit more difficult to dial, it couldn’t stop her from placing that call, to the University of Kentucky.
With the weight of a such a meaningful decision lifted, Erin capped her stellar high school tenure by being named 2013 Gatorade Indiana Softball Player of the Year her junior season and Fort Wayne News-Sentinel Player of the Year, as well as Indiana Miss Softball her senior campaign, then packed up and headed south to become a Wildcat.
It no time, the Kentucky coaching staff showed faith in the newest Wildcat.
While the ink on her high school diploma was barely dry, Erin stepped onto the field for the first time, as a member of the Kentucky team.
That game, a fall tilt against Florida A&M, found the freshman starting in the outfield and available for relief work in the pitching circle. That was day, as she declared, “It all felt real for the first time.”
A climb that began nearly 15 years earlier, in a Huntington barnyard, had reached the summit of division 1 softball, 265 miles away in Lexington, Kentucky.
Erin toed the rubber for just shy of 52 innings during her inaugural campaign in Wildcat blue and wrapped up the season with an impressive 2.85 earned run average.
Her sophomore season gave the Kentucky faithful an even deeper glimpse into the talented southpaw’s capabilities.
Even as elbow problems limited her mound time, she was able to spin a brilliant no hitter against Lipcomb.
However, as swimmingly as things seemed to be going on the outside, there was a tidal wave of emotion building inside the young Wildcat.
On top of her impressive pitching exploits, Erin was prolific high school hitter. In fact, it was a Rethlake homer that proved to be the difference in Huntington North’s 2012 Semi State win over Northridge.
Unfortunately, the success she’d found at the plate during her time at Huntington North was yet to materialize at the college level.
It was an unfamiliar struggle for a girl who’d always been able to out work any player she couldn’t out talent. This time, her blue-collar attitude walked the line, balanced, precariously between asset and liability.
Like many elite athletes, Erin’s hard-earned accolades had created an addiction to success. That addiction came with an inevitable price. As she stated, “I was so scared to fail, because I never really had.”
She confessed that as her hitting slump continued to rebuff attempts to break it, the extra bat work became almost “counterproductive”.
To make matters worse, the elbow injury lead to off season surgery, creating a tag team of woes that waged a relentless assault on her psyche.
The 2018 Kentucky Graduate spoke candidly of the struggle to keep the competitive fire lit that season. Revealing, “I lost it, temporarily” and “it just kind of became like a wall.”
With the help of her coaches and a surprising plan of attack, Erin discovered a way over her wall.
Early in her junior season, as she prepared to step into the batter’s box, Kentucky Head Coach Rachel Lawson approached her struggling hitter and suggested she attempt to slap hit.
Slap hitting, in a nutshell, involves running through the batter’s box, while utilizing a more controlled swing aimed at putting or slapping the ball into play. It’s a skill often taken advantage of by players with top end speed, something Erin possessed.
It was also an approach that she had virtually no experience doing.
Channeling her inner Transformer, the former power hitter not only pulled off the conversion but excelled at it. Her revamped swing propelled her batting average north of .300 by the end of the season.
Emboldened and refreshed by the new approach, Erin became a terror on the base paths, as well.
A four-steal game against Drexel tied the school record for most stolen bases in a single game and her season total of 18 steals ranked her 55th in the nation.
As her offensive game enjoyed a brilliant revitalization, she continued to impress on the mound and finished the season with a sparkling 1.90 earned run average.
Rethlake went on to tally personal bests in batting average (.306) and wins (11) during her senior season, as Kentucky advanced to Super Regional s for the third time in her four years as a Wildcat.
Kentucky fell one win short of qualifying for the College World Series that year. A loss to Oregon is the finals of the Super Regional ended their season and placed the final punctuation mark on Rethlake’s stellar career.
As the final moments of her playing days faded away, Erin took solace in the knowledge she had prepared for a future away from the chalk lines and on deck circles.
She was always aware there would be a time when “It’s about the work you did in the classroom.” That self-honesty caused the recipient of multiple Academic All American awards, to drive as much energy into her class work as she did into her play on the field.
Two years on, the scholastic effort has paid off.
When Erin’s younger sister Emily was born, doctors told the family that she would likely never speak or walk.
Now a high school student, Emily has proven doctors wrong. Although she remains nonverbal, she has developed her own way of communicating and is able to walk.
Knowing her sister would never have the opportunities that she herself was blessed with was a constant reminder to Erin that “There was never going to be a time where I let people think I was taking for granted the things I was able to do.”
It also had a direct impact on her career path.
Erin graduated from Kentucky with a degree in Special Education – Mild to Severe Disabilities. Since her commencement walk, she has made her way back home to Huntington and is the Special Education – Essential Skills teacher at Crestview Middle School.
She’s also still involved with the game she fell in love with so many years ago.
Erin currently serves as the head coach for the North Manchester based Indiana Shock 16U travel team and offers private instruction for pitchers, as well as hitters.
Drawing from her own experiences, Coach Rethlake not only teaches the physical aspects of softball, but preaches the mental side of the game, as well.
It’s an often-overlooked part of the game and one Erin expressed “I wish that I would have learned more of . . . growing up.”
In sort of her own, special circle of life way, Erin now passes along her wealth of softball insight to the next generations of diamond warriors, just as her dad did to her.
The only thing missing is the barnyard.