Erica Houge stepping out of big sister's shadow for Collins-Maxwell softball team
When she was entering her freshman year at Collins-Maxwell, current Spartan sophomore Erica Houge made sure to leave a message on TikTok for older sister Mikayla.
Mikayla had just completed one of the most successful careers in Iowa high school softball history.
She went 103-7 with a 0.92 ERA and 1,102 strikeouts in 653 2/3 innings over her five-year career. Houge also hit .434 with 16 home runs and drove in 166 runs at the plate, leading Collins-Maxwell to three consecutive Class 1A state title games and back-to-back state championships in 2018 and 2019.
But in the summer of her senior season, Mikayla met her match at practice in the form of her youngest sister. Erica mowed her down on strikes.
Then Erica let her know about it.
“I struck her out multiple times and I never rubbed it in, but she rubbed it in with me,” Mikayla jokingly said. “And she made a TikTok about it when I was in college.”
The TikTok message was a thoughtful gift from the youngest Houge to her older sister, who was about to begin her freshman year throwing Division 1 ball for Virginia.
“It said I’ve struck out a lot of people,” Erica said. “But no one compares to her.”
Erica has had big shoes to fill since her oldest sister departed the program.
She took over the starting pitcher position after going 1-0 in 14 innings of mop-up duty behind Mikayla as an eighth-grader. In her freshman year Erica picked up right where Mikayla left off, going 24-1 with an 0.46 ERA, 244 strikeouts and 30 walks in 137 innings.
But Collins-Maxwell failed to make the state tournament for the first time in the brief four-year history of the school. The Spartans lost to old nemesis Clarksville in last year's 1A regional finals, 3-2, after Erica gave up two home runs.
The game was similar to the 2020 1A state championship game when Clarksville beat Collins-Maxwell 2-0 after Mikayla gave up two solo home runs.
“One of the home runs Erica made a good pitch, they just did a better job hitting,” Collins-Maxwell head coach Troy Houge, Erica's father, said of last year's loss. “That’s no different than Mikayla’s pitch in the (2020) state championship game. She had one pitch that did kind of sit on her a little bit, but she knows that’s going to happen once in awhile.”
Erica has spent the entire offseason learning from that experience.
She's gained a little speed, getting her fast ball close to where Mikayla's was at 61-63 MPH. Erica has also gained confidence with her curve, rise ball and other movement pitches.
It helps to have Mikayla, now back from Virginia for the summer, there as a mentor.
“I’ve learned a lot of my pitching from her,” Erica said. “She’ll ask me what’s wrong if she knows I’m not being myself out there. If I have a question I can always go to her and ask.”
It also helps having a reliable battery mate in Marissa Boege.
Boege, a junior, has been Erica's catcher since grade school. She was her personal catcher two years ago then took over the starting varsity spot behind the plate last year.
“We know each other’s personalities,” Boege said. “I can tell if she’s struggling. I’m not scared to talk to her and she not scared to talk to me.”
Erica appreciates having someone she can relate with behind the plate.
“She knows my pitches and knows when I like throwing certain pitches more than others,” Erica said. “She’s improved a lot over the years with my movement. We know each other pretty well.”
Through Collins-Maxwell's first six games in 2022 Erica is 6-0 with a 0.36 ERA, 64 strikeouts and just four walks in 39 innings.
As well as the youngest Houge is doing on the mound, her hitting has stood out the most so far this summer.
“Everybody talks about how great she is at pitching, but she’s really stepped up on offense this year,” Collins-Maxwell shortstop Alexis Houge said. “We’re doing a lot better because of that.”
Alexis, the middle child of the three Houge siblings, will join Mikayla as a Division 1 player next year after signing with DePaul. She is a four-time all-state performer at shortstop and one of the best leadoff hitters in the state, sporting a .706 batting average with 12 runs and 10 steals so far in 2022.
With her amazing ability to reach base safely and steal bases it doesn't take much for Collins-Maxwell to manufacture runs.
“It’s awesome having a leadoff I know most likely is going to get on,” Erica said. “It helps me get my RBIs up and anytime she gets on base I know we have a really good chance of scoring. That helps me be more confident (pitching) throughout the game.”
Erica has made sure the Spartans don't miss out on any opportunities to get Alexis home. She has been on fire offensively thus far in 2022.
Through the Spartans first six games Erica is hitting .600 with one double, two triples, three home runs and 17 RBIs. She is currently second in 1A for slugging percentage at 1.300 and is tied for fourth in RBIs.
“When I see it, I hit it as hard as I can,” Erica said. “There's not much difference in my approach from last year.”
But her father said there is a noticeable improvement with her hitting this year.
“She’s grown everywhere, but just her patience off the bat has been the biggest thing,” Troy said. “It comes in bunches right now and she has a flair for the dramatic.”
Erica is already rewriting the Collins-Maxwell record books at the plate.
She hit a walk-off, three-run homer in the 10th inning to beat Roland-Story, 3-0, in Collins-Maxwell's season opener. Erica tripled, homered and drove in seven runs in an 11-1 victory over rival Baxter Friday and she hit for the cycle in a 7-0 victory over GMG June 1.
Erica's three homers have her on pace to easily break the school single-season home run mark of five set by her eldest sibling in 2019.
She's mimicking her favorite Major League Baseball player — and admitted crush — Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees. Judge currently leads the majors with 21 home runs.
"I named my batting dummy Aaron Judge and I was going to put a face of him on it and laminate his card and put it in my back pocket,” Houge said. “I haven't gotten around to that yet.”
Erica's tremendous power and knack for timely hits have helped Collins-Maxwell overcome some early-season inconsistency as a team on offense.
“So far she’s trying to take out of the hands of everybody else,” Troy said. “She can’t do that all the time, but it never hurts to try.”
Erica said she just wants to do her part to help the team succeed. If she can keep it up the Spartans have an excellent chance of making it back to the state tournament in July.
“I’m just being patient with the bat and throwing my pitches,” Erica said. “It’s all coming together right now.”