Minutewomen benefit from veteran leadership

AMHERST, Mass. -- Even though it's frequently hidden behind a catcher's mask, KJ Kelley's freckled visage is the face of college softball, 25 years after the first NCAA Tournament.

The University of Massachusetts senior isn't the best player in the nation. She might not even be the best catcher in the country, although a strong case could be made that she belongs in the conversation with Emily Zaplatosch, Becky Marx and others.

But in her largely anonymous success and fierce devotion to the game, Kelley unquestionably represents the best the college game has to offer.

As her surprising Minutewomen prepare for this weekend's super regional against No. 4 seed Northwestern, Kelley in many ways represents the countless overlooked players who spend four years making programs something more than they were when they arrived as untested freshmen.

UMass surprised many by advancing out of an Amherst Regional that included No. 13 seed Texas A&M. Freshman pitcher Brandice Balschmiter (31-7, 0.70 ERA) led the way with a no-hitter and two other strong outings, but the team couldn't have moved forward without its catcher.

"I can't tell you how big her leadership has been," coach Elaine Sortino said of Kelley's performance in the regional. "[She's been] staunch behind the plate, an absolute wall. And on top of it, coming up with some key hits. She's as tough as nails; she's really put it together. And most importantly, how she's been able to handle Brandice, a young pitcher, and be a leader with her in tough situations."

Whenever Kelley's career does come to an end during the next two weeks, she'll leave as the school's all-time leader in home runs, RBI and walks, no small feat for a program with as much softball history as Massachusetts.

It's safe to assume she'll also leave among the program's all-time leaders in miles traveled on breaks, coming from Rainier, Ore., a town about 50 miles north of Portland on the border between Oregon and Washington.

When asked whether she had been to New England before setting her sights on the school two hours west of Boston, Kelley answered "No," adding the slight chuckle of someone who has encountered her share of frigid winters, Dunkin Donuts and Massachusetts motorists. "My official visit was my first time ever being in the Northeast. I've been to Florida, Georgia and all those places, but I think the closest I had been to here was Ohio, and that was when I was 10."

But the chance to broaden her horizons and play for Sortino, a veteran of 27 seasons and three College Word Series appearances, more than outweighed concerns about wicked cold winters.

"I was ready to go away from home, and I wanted something different, so I figured why not," Kelley said. "And I fell in love with the coach, and she really helped make my decision. It's an honor to play for a coach who you love to play for, where every day you're ready to play for that coach and not dread it."

No doubt the feeling is mutual for Sortino, after having Kelley around to anchor her lineup for four seasons. As a freshman, Kelley hit .308 with eight home runs and 27 RBI, starting 51 of 54 games (the latter part of the equation representing the only three games of her career that she didn't start). But like any great player, Kelley didn't rest on those accomplishments.

Although she drew just 19 walks that first season, Kelley has grown into one of the most patient power hitters in the game, emerging as a model of plate discipline for a team that relies on pitch selection in fueling its offensive attack -- the Minutewomen boast a .412 on-base percentage and average three walks a game.

"I think the more I've developed as a hitter, the more patient I've been up there," Kelley said. "I've had to, because they're not going to give me a lot, so I have to be patient until they give me a pitch. I've just got to stay together, stay focused and be ready for that pitch."

Never was that more true than in regional play. Against Lehigh in a crucial winner's bracket game on the second day of the Amherst Regional, Kelley drew five walks (one intentional) in five plate appearances and failed to take the bait as the Mountain Hawks pitched around her for 10 innings.

Having lost some of her lineup protection with the graduation of Denise Denis (.360, 7 HR, 43 RBI in 2005) and Hilary Puglia (.341, 11 HR, 40 RBI), temptation abounds for Kelley to expand her own strike zone in an effort to produce the same kind of power numbers she's accustomed to (including a school single-season record of 14 home runs last season).

But who better than a catcher to know that it's not always the things that show up in a box score that help a team the most.

"Our team kept its composure," Kelley said of the game against Lehigh, in which her teammates broke loose for six runs in the final three innings. "They know teams don't like to pitch to me a lot, so staying within ourselves and knowing each person can get it done is really what we're all about this year."

When pitchers do give Kelley something to hit, she rarely misses, hitting .391 with runners in scoring position. That was again the case in Sunday's regional final, when Kelley closed the scoring in a 3-0 win with an RBI single in her first at-bat of the game with runners in scoring position. For the season, Kelley is hitting .347 with 42 RBI and a team-leading 31 walks.

But just because she's blessed with veteran savvy doesn't mean Kelley is lost in sentimental ponderings about her final postseason run.

"You can't really make it feel different, whether it's your senior year, freshman year or whatever year it is," the senior said. "Each year is different, and you've got to treat every year as if it's your last year. You never know how many chances you're going to get to go to the World Series, or to go to that regional."

It's the same pragmatic attitude that will guide Kelley once she departs campus.

"Wherever my future takes me is where it's going to take me," she said. "I could stay here, I could go down South. I could go pretty much anywhere I want, and I'm open to that. I've gone from the West Coast to the East Coast, so why not go South, stay here or go back?"

For now, the short-term future may be just a few miles to the northwest in Lowell, Mass., where Kelley says she hopes to play for the New England Riptide in the National Pro Fastpitch league this summer. But Sortino expects her catcher to eventually have the same kind of impact on another generation of players that the UMass coach had on the kid from Oregon.

"That's what she wants, and that's what I hope for," Sortino said of Kelley's coaching aspirations. "She'll really lend herself well to the game and grow with the game."

It's hard not to see a future coach when Kelley visits the mound to settle down Balschmiter or quietly offers words of advice from the on-deck circle to freshman slugger Whitney Mollica.

Like so many in this sport, there's simply too much softball in her body to get it all out of her system in the scant span of four years.

But Kelley can't be faulted if she chooses to ignore the big picture for now. After all, she has a team to lead this weekend in Evanston, Ill. And a few more games in her college career make for a far better prize than any award or recognition.

"We've got to stay focused," she said. "That's my future, and right now is right now, and that's what I've got to pay attention to."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.