Like most other folks with past or current ties to Soddy-Daisy High School softball, former Lady Trojans coach Clifford Kirk knows exactly where he'll be at 7 o'clock tonight.
"I'll be in front of my television, watching Kelsey," said Kirk, the Hall of Fame coach who now coaches Sale Creek. "I'll be pulling for Kentucky, and I've always been a Tennessee fan."
Thanks in large part to Kelsey Nunley's right arm, Kentucky's Wildcats face Louisiana-Lafayette this evening on ESPN2 in the opening round of the double-elimination Women's College (Softball) World Series at Oklahoma City. It's the first time the UK program has gotten this far and Wildcats coach Rachel Lawson believes her sophomore ace is the chief reason.
"Kelsey is the difference right now," Lawson wrote in an email on Wednesday. "Not only is she a great pitcher and she keeps the runs down, but I also believe that her team has a lot of confidence in her. Because of that they are better at the plate. Even if they have a bad at-bat one time, they know she is going to keep us in the game and they will get another chance."
The numbers would certainly support that. Now 29-9 on the season, Nunley has thrown every pitch for Kentucky in the NCAA tournament, posting a 5-2 record and 0.87 ERA in 48.1 innings of work.
In Sunday's sweep at UCLA after dropping the opening game of the best-of-three Super Regional on Saturday night, Nunley threw 14 innings, surrendered but four runs to the nation's No. 3 team and walked away with two victories by scores of 7-3 and 7-1.
"For it to happen on such a storied softball field, where college softball was pretty much invented," said Lawson of UCLA's Easton Stadium, "is a dream come true for our team and our staff."
Nunley's original dream was to play for her high school coach's favorite college team. Like most kids in the Tennessee Valley, she grew up bleeding orange and hoping UT coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly would show a little love for the Soddy-Daisy area where they long kept a summer home after leaving UT-Chattanooga. Especially since Nunley's pitching helped deliver Soddy two state titles.
"I had my mind set on them," she said Tuesday afternoon from Oklahoma City. "I was pretty much sold on Tennessee. Then it went downhill at the end of my junior year."
The reason most often given for that rejection is that the Vols were both heavy with pitching and light on scholarship money. And until Tennessee faced Kentucky in the SEC Tournament earlier this month, it didn't seem to be an issue. But with Nunley striking out seven Vols, including one late to erase a bases-loaded jam, the Cats won 2-0.
Of far bigger import, UK is still alive while UT's season is over after losing to Oklahoma this past weekend.
Asked if she was taking any special satisfaction in that, Nunley said, "Not really. I know they're always going to be good. Tennessee's still a great team."
But she did admit to feeling some excitement about knocking off the Big Orange in the SEC tourney.
"That," she said, "was pretty awesome."
Awesome is apparently what it's like to coach Nunley.
"Kelsey is genuinely the most down-to-earth honest person I have ever met," wrote Lawson. "The funny idiosyncrasy about her is that she doesn't like people to exaggerate a story at all, even to embellish a story and add life to the party. She believes the truth should be enough. For someone in her age group, who is so steady, and doesn't like things exaggerated is unique. She is 19-20 years old but going on 50."
Said Kirk: "Kelsey is just a special kind of person. She played everything at Soddy Daisy -- volleyball, basketball softball. But during basketball season she never threw less than once a week, and sometimes twice a week, so she'd be ready for softball. She may be the hardest working, most coachable girl I've ever coached. I don't know if Kentucky will win the World Series, but I know Kelsey will do her part."
The hardest part for Nunley and her teammates was just getting to this point, having lost twice in Super Regionals the past four years. But if you think a celebration in Los Angeles for an accomplishment never previously achieved at UK might be a reason to go overboard -- say a shopping spree on Rodeo Drive or dinner at Spago -- you'd be wrong.
"We went to In-N-Out Burgers," Nunley said of the regional chain. "Then we had cookies and ice cream at Diddy Riese Cookies. The line was literally around the block. It took forever but it was worth it."
It should be worth it to catch Nunley and her Big Blue teammates in action this weekend. Maybe ESPN2 will show her returning to a specific spot on the bench between innings, as has been her superstition all season. What the cable colossus hopefully won't be able to bring into your living room is the odor from Nunley's left batting glove, which has been under her fielding glove every game this spring.
"I've worn the same batting gloves all season long," she said. "The left one, particularly, stinks something terrible."
But probably no more than it stinks for UT fans to know Nunley's still throwing strikes for Big Blue while the Big Orange's season is done.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...