Replacing an all-conference shortstop wasn’t something the Maryville College softball coaching staff was looking forward to late last spring.
Head coach Kim Woodard then got a phone call from a talented junior college prospect with local ties who wanted to return home. Assistant coach Jessie Hackworth looked up her numbers.
When the pair visited Chattanooga State last May to watch Leah Kelley play in the junior college regional tournament, Hackworth said she turned to her boss and said: “Kim, we just got really lucky.”
The NCAA released its first softball statistics of the season on Tuesday, and some of the stuff Kelley is doing as Maryville readies to host Agnes Scott and Spelman in a two-day, Great South Athletic Conference set this weekend is real double- and triple-take reading.
The former William Blount High School star currently ranks second in Division III with a .545 batting average. Leader Staci Doucette of Linfield isn’t far away at .548. Maryville bests for runs (15), hits (30), doubles (6), triples (4) and home runs (2, tied with freshman catcher Chastity Smith) say Kelley is on pace to deliver a season the likes of which the Scots have never known.
“She’s actually ranked in seven (national) categories,” Maryville sports information director Eric Etchison said.
It’s the one for slugging percentage that’s hard to wrap your mind around.
Slugging percentage in baseball or softball, for the uninitiated, is calculated by dividing a player’s total bases by number of at bats. That’s one base for each single, two for every double, three for a triple and four bases on your total for every home run.
Walks don’t count.
Babe Ruth compiled an .847 slugging percentage in his first season with the New York Yankees in 1920, a Major League record that stood for 81 years until San Francisco’s Barry Bonds toppled it with an .863 in 2001.
Kelley, a slender 5-foot-6, is currently slugging .909.
“I think Leah is just confident,” junior Chelsi Hooper said. “She’s a great athlete. She has one of the best swings I’ve ever seen, and she doesn’t let anything get to her.”
At shortstop, Kelley is fielding her position at a .938 success rate with only three errors.
“If the ball is hit to shortstop, we don’t have to worry about it,” Hooper said. “She’s got it.”
The craziest thing about the slugging mark is Linfield catcher Emilee Lepp currently leads the nation, pounding the competition at a 1.231 clip, with 16 home runs through 20 games doing much of the damage. Kelley currently sits 10th.
Linfield, a 1,700-student McMinnville, Ore., school, is the 2007 Division III national champion and 2009 and 2010 runner up.
That’s the part that grabs Kelley.
While she’s enjoying what could easily finish an All-American season and easing Maryville concerns over the loss of all-conference shortstop Lindsy Little after last season, Kelley’s enthusiasm is tempered by a Maryville team (4-12) that’s struggling at present.
“We have great players,” she said. “We have great hitters. We just haven’t hit all together yet. We know our record, and we know we have to keep working hard.”
Senior Jessica Carter (.396) and Smith (.306) are both hitting over .300 for the Scots, with sophomore Ashlan Cosner close at .275. Maryville is a perfect 13-for-13 in stolen base attempts, with Kelley and senior Hope Marlow, both 4-for-4, leading the way.
It’s not pushing runners home when they get them on that’s been problematic, Woodard said. That, along with an intentionally tough preconference schedule, has Maryville with some work to do, but it’s far from time to push the panic button.
“Going into conference, we’re confident in ourselves,” Hooper said. “We know what we can do.”
It’s postseason success where Woodard said she wants the Scots to make their mark, which is fine with Kelley.
One of the nation’s top junior college programs, Chattanooga State missed reaching the national tournament Kelley’s freshman season two years ago.
Kelley’s game-winning home run in the region final last spring ensured it would be a short absence.
“Just how hard we worked at Chattanooga and how much of a better person I became, both on and off the field, is what I remember,” Kelley said.
Playing in the national tournament, she added, was “one of those dreams come true.”
Offers from Division I programs followed in due course, Texas Tech and UT-Martin among them. A child development major, Kelley said she simply wanted to come home for a while.
“You can go to the SEC,” she said, “but you can go to Maryville College and get a great education and still get to play softball.”
After deciding on Maryville, Kelley said she called Woodard and asked the Scots coach to come down and watch her play. Things didn’t go so well that first look, Kelley finishing the afternoon 0-for-4.
“She called me and said, ‘Please come and watch another game,’” Woodard said.
The decision to recruit Kelley had largely been made before Hackworth and she left for Chattanooga, Woodard said. A power-hitting shortstop from one of the country’s premier junior colleges, and she wanted to come home and play for Maryville?
Wasn’t much of a decision.
“I just wanted to go see her and see what she was like as a team player,” Woodard said.
Kelley joined an already decidedly fun bunch at Maryville, Woodard said. The chemistry worked right away. Since arriving at Maryville, Kelley has only improved as a player.
During a 7-0 shutout of LaGrange last weekend, “She hit to right field!” said Woodard, taking a light-hearted jab at her standout shortstop after Tuesday’s practice. “She hit to right field three times this weekend against LaGrange, and one of them was a triple.”
Because Kelley’s speed on the base paths is as much a factor in her slugging as a pair of super-quick hands, Woodard said she chose to bat her in the leadoff spot to give Kelley as many at bats as possible.
“She’s probably one of the most relaxed batters I’ve ever seen in the box,” Woodard said. “You wish you could teach that, but you can’t.”
Kelley’s statistics to date rival any on the baseball or softball diamond in the school’s history, Etchison said, former Scot Chucky Yates, who led the nation in stolen bases one season, and former Lady Scot Sabrina Zaparyniuk, who went an entire season one spring without striking out, perhaps notable exceptions.
The numbers are evidence of a lot of hard work, but Maryville reaching the NCAA Division III tournament in little over a month’s time would provide a bigger lift, Kelley said.
“That’s my mindset,” she said, “to make it to nationals.”
A .900 slugging percentage will sure help.