In a way, Erin Stroup represents a microcosm of the metamorphosis the Sterling Golden Warriors softball team has made since it walked off the field last June after taking fourth at the 3A state tournament.
A little over a month ago, Stroup was asked to fill some mighty big shoes.
Sterling's Karlie Mellott – the Cornell University-bound senior – was injured, and the Warriors needed a temporary leadoff hitter.
First year head coach Becki Edmondson turned to Stroup, a sophomore in her first full year on varsity.
"The first game I was really nervous," Stroup said. "But after that, I settled in and started to get really comfortable with it. It helps to have Karlie around, because I go back to the dugout, and she can tell me what I could have done better. She just knows so much about softball."
Since Mellott's return to the lineup, the Warriors have stuck with Stroup batting leadoff and Mellott batting second. It's formed a potent 1-2 punch.
"I think Karlie has really started to like the idea of being able to get more RBIs," Edmondson said. "She knows that Erin is going to get on base a lot, and that's going to put Karlie in the position of delivering a big hit."
"I don't know if its intimidating," Stroup said. "I just think teams have started to have high expectations when they come and play here, and I think we've done our best to deliver on those."
Stoup was able to handle the transition, in part, because batting leadoff is something she has done for years at the ASA level.
Once she adjusted to varsity this season, she put herself in same mindset as she does in the summer tournaments.
"It's about taking pitches and working the count," Stroup said. "I've been doing it a long time. I just can't be too nervous, and I just have to try and get on base."
Like Stroup was able to take up the leadoff mantle, a youthful bunch of Warriors have filled in for departing seniors from 2013 around the field to help Sterling to a 23-8 record and a NIB-12 West title in 2014.
Stroup has also replaced the graduated Jen Rahn defensively at first base.
Even the coaching staff has changed, as veteran Rick Henderson retired in the summer, and his assistant, Edmondson, took over.
Having Mellott and fellow senior Darien Bardoner around has helped shape a group of juniors, sophomores and freshmen.
"As a young coaching staff, we turned to those two seniors to set the example for the rest of the team," Edmondson said. "We said look, they aren't going to take it as yelling if you are just trying to give them direction."
The pressure of living up to expectations hasn't caused the young Warriors to crack. In fact, they are starting to thrive.
Last weekend, they won the IC Catholic tournament where they were successful against tough pitchers from Reed-Custer, IC Catholic and Burlington Central.
"We're young, but I think we have a lot of players with a lot of experience in big tournaments," Stroup said. "Winning last weekend was good, because that was some of the best pitching that we've seen."
Now it's time for the big payoff, as Sterling will enter as the top seed at the 3A Rock Falls Regional.
"It doesn't matter how many games we've won at this point," Edmondson said. "We've been in that spot of being the favorite and have lost before. You can't look past anybody."
The single-elimination concept is perhaps the scariest thing for Stroup and her comrades used the double-elimination or round-robin usually used in ASA tournaments.
"That losing one game and being done is scary," Stroup said. "We're excited about next week, but that's the scariest part."