In a sense, Kelsey Nunley has lived her childhood dream — she’s just done it wearing a color she never anticipated.
Growing up, Nunley idolized Monica Abbott, the star UT softball pitcher. She had one of Abbott’s jerseys in her room. “I really looked up to her,” Nunley said last week.
In her dream scenario, Nunley was going to follow in the footsteps of her idol and do great things in Tennessee orange.
Except, after she’d become a star pitcher for the Soddy-Daisy Lady Trojans, Tennessee did not come through with a scholarship offer.
“They told her they had seven scholarship offers out, and they didn’t have any (scholarship) money for her,” said Clifford Kirk, who coached Nunley at Soddy-Daisy. “Kelsey was a Tennessee kid through and through. That was a tough thing.”
Said Nunley: “It just said, ‘We’re interested if you are interested.’”
Suddenly, Nunley was rather interested in Kentucky.
Flash forward to the present.
With only one NCAA Tournament left in her college career, Nunley — the 2016 SEC Pitcher of the Year — is the most decorated softball player to play at UK. As a sophomore in 2014, she threw every inning of every NCAA tourney game while leading Kentucky to its first Women’s College World Series.
“These last few years, she’s pretty much set the tone for our entire program,” UK’s Lawson said. “She’s been a great leader — and that’s not a term I use easily.”
It turns out, you can live your dreams in blue every bit as easily as in orange.
When you visit Soddy-Daisy, a town of some 13,190 located 24 miles from Chattanooga, the community brags about its softball success at the exact moment you get there.
Once you cross the Opossum Creek, you are greeted with a sign that says “Proud of our Lady Trojans. Soddy-Daisy High School TSSAA State Softball Champions 1991, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2010.”
So strong has the softball been at Soddy-Daisy, the sign doesn’t even have room for the 2012 state championship to which Kelsey Nunley pitched the Lady Trojans.
In retrospect, it seems destined that Nunley was going to be a sports star. The first word to pass from the mouth of the youngest of Randy and Jane Nunley’s two daughters was “ball.”
“She, from the time she would sit up, she would roll a ball back and forth with me as long as I would do so,” Randy Nunley said.
By the age of 4, Kelsey was playing organized baseball. At 8, her parents shifted her to softball.
That year, she was playing shortstop when a batter seared a line drive right at her. The ball skipped off Kelsey’s glove and crashed into her nose, breaking it.
The next year, when Kelsey became a softball pitcher, her dad insisted she wear a protective mask lest she break her nose again. That made her an early adapter of what is now common safety equipment.
“I hated it at first,” Kelsey says of pitching in a mask. “I felt like I was kind of an outsider because nobody else was wearing one.”
At Soddy-Daisy High School, Kelsey played volleyball and was a standout basketball player — but softball was her calling card. As a senior in 2012, she threw 12 no-hitters.
“She was one of the better workers I’ve ever had,” said Kirk, the former Soddy-Daisy coach. “She’d have basketball practice, then come up and go through softball conditioning. Kelsey had ability, obviously, but she put in the work to be good.”
UK’s pursuit of Nunley had some twists. Lawson showed up to see Kelsey pitch for Soddy-Daisy in the 2010 state championship game. “But she’d gotten hurt in the celebration after (winning) the game before, and didn’t pitch,” the UK coach recalled.
The next time Lawson saw Nunley, it was in a summer game. The Kentucky coach was there to scout the pitcher for the other team.
“That’s only part of what is funny about that story,” Lawson says. “That day, I was really impressed with Kelsey. Watching her, I thought she threw a great rise ball and a great drop ball. After she got to Lexington, she told me she didn’t (at that time) throw either pitch. … She just had so much movement on her pitches, I left thinking she had two great pitches that she didn’t even throw.”
Even after Tennessee took itself out of her recruitment, Nunley had other SEC options. Florida had sent her her first letter. “Georgia was interested,” said Kirk, the high school coach.
Kelsey picked UK. “I knew Kentucky was in the SEC, and that’s something I had always wanted,” she said. “And I wanted to go to a place where I felt like I could make a difference.”
Going into the 2016 NCAA Tournament, Nunley has thrown 926 career innings as a Kentucky pitcher. She’s won 91 games (91-43), thrown 21 shutouts.
None of those moments top the thrill of walking into the circle before the first inning in Oklahoma City at the 2014 Women’s College World Series.
“I’m not a person who likes to look into the stands when I am pitching,” Nunley said. “But the first time I walked out there, I was like, ‘I might never be here again.’ So, as I was warming up, I was kind of like looking around, taking it all in. … I was like, ‘Wow, this is crazy, but it is awesome.’ It’s something that will just give you the chills.”
The pitcher has one more chance to make it back to OKC, of course. No. 9 seed Kentucky (43-12) will open 2016 NCAA Tournament play Friday at John Cropp Stadium against Butler (28-22) at 6 p.m. Illinois (35-21) will meet Utah (32-19) in the opener at 3:30.
Nunley believes the current UK team is the best one she’s played on, in part because of its pitching depth.
In the 2014 College World Series run, Nunley famously worked every inning of the NCAA tourney. She appeared to run out of gas while UK lost all of a 7-0 lead in the final two innings and fell to Baylor 8-7 in a World Series elimination game.
This year, Nunley (20-5, 1.28 ERA) has pitching help, primarily in the form of junior Meagan Prince (19-5, 1.80 ERA). “It takes a lot of pressure off of me because I know if I can’t get it done, someone else can,” Nunley said.
Still, if Kentucky is going to advance to an NCAA Tournament super-regional for a fourth straight year and to its second World Series in three seasons, the pitcher from Soddy-Daisy will likely be the primary reason.
Making it back to Oklahoma City “would be another dream come true,” Kelsey Nunley said.
One final dream fulfilled in blue, not orange.