University of Kentucky softball coach Rachel Lawson can recall the moment that former Soddy-Daisy High School pitcher Kelsey Nunley accepted a scholarship offer to come play for the Wildcats.
"She was very matter-of-fact," Lawson said. "She said she was excited in her cool little southern way. She was very composed."
That comes off as typical to those in the Chattanooga area who know her. And now it seems her Kentucky teammates and coaches have figured that out.
"She was accepted very quickly," Lawson said. "She's real. She's down to earth. She's the type of pitcher that says 'Give me the ball,' and she takes responsibility for what happens. At first nobody knew her, but she's got a great personality and she's a great teammate. She stays in the background until it's her time, then she takes charge and really leads the team."
Now that the regular season ended Sunday with No. 19-ranked Kentucky earning a 9-5 victory over No. 7 Alabama, Nunley is ready to lead the Wildcats into the Southeastern Conference tournament. It will be held in Lexington, Ky., and will run Wednesday through Saturday's championship game.
Nunley exuded composure throughout her prep career, which included three consecutive trips to Class AAA state finals with two championships. She acknowledges the last one because she got to finish that one.
But in the Southeastern Conference -- a league in which seven teams besides Kentucky are ranked in the ESPN.COM/USA Softball Collegiate Top 25, including four in the top eight -- a pitcher's composure is surely tested regularly.
"The whole lineup is really good in college, especially teams in the SEC," Nunley said. "It's like facing the third batter on a really good team in high school every time. There really aren't any breaks. You have to go hard all the time. You have to work."
Not only has Nunley worked -- she led the conference with 40 appearances and 2231/3 innings pitched -- she's been productive throughout the year and shined in stretches. She was selected SEC pitcher of the week for the second week in April and was chosen freshman of the week two weeks later.
Nunley will finish the regular season ranked in the SEC's top 10 in ERA (2.01) and strikeouts (170), and with a 24-7 pitching record she is the first in school history to reach 20 pitching victories in a season.
"I wouldn't have recruited her if I didn't think she could dominate," Lawson said. "It's really a credit to her for what she's been able to come in and do. I didn't anticipate she would win 20 games as a freshman, especially with the schedule we have."
Kentucky (38-17, 13-11) will be seeded seventh and will play 10th-seeded South Carolina in its SEC tournament opener Wednesday at 4 p.m.
"I feel pretty good about the team," Nunley said. "I have confidence in them. They're always behind me. I feel like if we play to our potential like we can, we can play with really good teams and beat them like we have before."
Contact Kelley Smiddie at email@example.com or 423-757-6653. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/KelleySmiddie.
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.