Senior leaders propel program to bright future
Greg McKenna | Friday, May 15, 2020
Saint Mary’s softball had its season cut short after going precisely .500 in just 12 games, but head coach Kelli Zache Martin felt that 2020 was a very productive year for the Belles nonetheless.
Despite having only five upperclassmen on a team just 13 women strong, Zache’s young group gelled very quickly on the team’s travels to Florida. After two losses in early February, Saint Mary’s bounced back with a five-game winning streak to open up the trip.
“It was probably one of the best Florida trips as far as how our team bonding went,” Zache said. “We’ve graduated some really key players. So overall, you can see we were really young. … I think this was the smallest roster that I’ve had since I’ve been here. … I think everybody knew they were going to get in and what role they had … everybody got along.”
Saint Mary’s was unable to begin conference play — the Belles were picked to finish fourth in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MIAA) preseason poll — but Zache was excited to see what her team could accomplish in one of the most competitive leagues in Division III.
“I’m really curious to see how we would have done in the conference because our conference is tough,” she said. “And just through the leadership that we had in Florida, we were just really clicking. We were a young group, but just really eager to learn and eager to play and just hungry. I knew that it was going to be a tough season for us just because of losing some big leadership over the last two years, but they were willing to do whatever I asked of them, and that made the season way better than I anticipated even though it was shortened.”
Zache’s “young group” has certainly become accustomed to playing in close games. Ten of the team’s 12 contests were decided by three runs or less, and the Belles went 3-3 in one-run games. Though the Saint Mary’s season ended with a 7-6 loss to Swarthmore, Zache said she was pleased to see her team almost shock the Garnet with a remarkable rally in the bottom of the seventh. Down 7-1 entering the final frame, the Belles scored five times and put the tying run on second with no outs. Though Swarthmore retired the next three batters in-order, Zache was relieved that her three treasured senior leaders could leave the field — potentially for the final time as a student-athlete — with their heads held high.
“At that moment, I knew that our season was over, but our seniors didn’t,” she said. “I’m sitting at third base, and I’m just like fighting back tears, honestly, because I’m like, these girls don’t know, they have no idea. At least when you’re a senior and it’s your last game, it’s never easy, but you have some time to cope with it. … Because I’m like, man, that also stinks if we lose 7-1. And they don’t know that that’s their last game, like, their last at-bat. And I think what made it a little bit more fulfilling … every one of them got on-base. … They did their job.”
The Belles might have been a young team, but senior classmates outfielder Kelsey Keilman, third baseman Alyssa Gutierrez and infielder Alison Alberts provided exemplary leadership on and off the field. Zache described their impact by explaining how their attitude embodied the program’s ideal of “servant leadership.”
“Every senior I speak volumes about,” she said. “They were always the first [to say], ‘Coach, what can I help you with? What can I get you? Is there anything else you need?’ … If I’m going to be late to practice or something’s going on, it’s like, ‘Hey you three, I really need you to lead into this — X, Y, Z,’ and you have no doubt that [they were] going to get done.”
Keilman, a graduate of Marian high school in Mishawaka, Indiana, was on the brink of rewriting the program’s record books while finishing her degree in nursing. The senior outfielder not only led the team with a .429 batting average and an OBP of .535, but she also managed to hit for extra bases six times, including three triples. Zache said Keilman’s explosive performances were partly a product of a change in approach by the former “slap hitter.”
“I was like, ‘You know what? Let’s hit away,’” said Zache. “‘You’ve been lifting, you’ve been getting stronger, … you’re a good hitter, let’s hit away.’”
Keilman was also the recipient of the Donald Miller Belles Spirit Award, which is given annually to the senior who best exemplifies the winning spirit of Saint Mary’s athletics. The two-time captain and all-conference outfielder plans to take advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted to spring athletes by the NCAA while earning a doctorate in nursing and working full-time as an RN.
Fellow South Bend native Gutierrez will also return in 2021 and was a co-recipient of the Mary Ellen Smith Academic and Athletic Achievement Award. The four-year starter for the Belles at third base maintained a 3.9 GPA as an undergraduate.
Across the diamond, Alberts was a consistent contributor at first base in her four years with the Belles. In 2020, the Evergreen Park, Illinois, native’s .276 AVG and .400 OBP were the third and second highest marks for the Belles, respectively.
Alberts may have had her career cut short, but she and her fellow seniors were a part of the 2018 team that won a conference title and played in the NCAA tournament, both firsts for the program. Zache said these three women exemplify her recruiting pitch.
“It just really sets a standard for our program,” she said. “[I can say], ‘Hey, you can be an athlete, and you can be competitive and, you know, see some of the greatest competition in Division III, but you can also walk out of here with a great degree and a high GPA and great job placement.”
Considering the team’s relative youth, it was a given that every underclassman would need to step up. The challenge was met by the Belles’ pitching staff, which solely consisted of sophomores Mandi Hettinger and Hailey Hisaw. The pair threw for a collective 2.10 ERA in a combined 80 innings pitched. Despite the drastically abbreviated season, both Hettinger and Hisaw managed to earn MIAA Pitcher of the Week honors once.
With a large recruiting class planning to arrive in the fall, Zache said she is grateful that all her underclassmen saw substantial action in 2020 and can help bring a new talented group of freshmen into the fold.
“They’ve gotten so much experience and they’ve seen such good leadership,” she said. “I’m fully confident because of the women that they are and the roles they stepped into this year.”