TOLONO — Name recognition helped get her foot in the door.
Knowledge of softball kept it there while opening up a new opportunity.
Kelley Wedel wasn’t a total unknown when she was introduced as Unity’s softball coach.
A four-year starter at third base for Illinois, Wedel already had Unity players among those in her fan club.
“I have posters of the Illini softball team from years past, and she is on multiple ones of them,” sophomore Carsen Bolstad said. “I never thought we would ever be this lucky to have a former college player, let alone a UI player, coach us. Coach Wedel is probably the best coach you could have.”
Unity senior Lacy Pruitt has similar feelings.
“As a kid, I idolized the Illini players,” Pruitt said. “It was so cool to meet one, and now we have one as our head coach.”
Coaching wasn’t on Wedel’s radar as she earned her bachelor’s degree in kinesiology.
“I never thought, in my wildest dreams, I would coach softball,” Wedel said. “I didn’t think I’d be the player that could explain what to do. I just did it.”
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Wedel had a tryout, of sorts, before she was hired to coach the Rockets.
Former Illini Heather Black recruited her to assist with the second-year 12U Champaign Dream girls’ softball program. That travel season started last August and still is going.
One appeal to the Dream position is that the other assistant coach is Matt Cervantes, who became Wedel’s fiance when he proposed to her at third base after her final UI home game, last May 6.
“Travel ball opened my eyes to the impact I could have,” Wedel said, “and everything fell into place.”
That impact increased when she added the Unity head coaching duties to those with the Dream, which has a 33-3 record.
“I never thought I’d be 23 and coaching high school,” Wedel said, “but I’m glad I stepped in when I did.”
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Unity is winning games (16-9), and Wedel is winning applause from those on the team.
“She has brought us a wealth of knowledge,” sophomore McKenzie Krutsinger said. “She has so much experience in the sport, so we all trust her and know that she is doing everything she can to make us better.
“She has taught us a lot about attitude and being held accountable for what you do.”
Wedel said she has recycled what she has learned.
“I find a lot of what I was taught is coming back, like a ghost,” Wedel said.
“Anything I say has been said before or is my own take on what I’ve been taught.”
She understood that she couldn’t rely on her reputation upon entering the coaching profession.
“Being from the UI, the community knows your face,” Wedel said, “and that helps, but you have to earn their respect.”
It also helps that her commitment matches what she expects from her players.
“Coach is always willing to give up her spare time to help us with whatever we want to work on,” Bolstad said. “She has given us a passion for the game and taught us that if we trust her, we can and will win.”
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Wedel’s delivery is what impresses the Rockets.
“She lights a fire in us that makes us strive for the best,” Pruitt said. “She’s really laid-back, and the environment is positive. You can tell she’s here to help us.”
Junior Madi Clark had some anxious moments before the season got going.
“I was really excited but also a little nervous,” Clark said. “I figured she’d know a lot about the game, but I was a little nervous how intense our season could be.”
Wedel is not overbearing, but she also makes certain her players understand practice is a time to work, not to spectate.
“We emphasize going game speed all the time,” Wedel said. “We like to go 100 percent.”
She understands the influence in her word choices.
“That sounds like (Illini) Coach (Terri) Sullivan,” Wedel said.
Senior Rachel Billman said there’s little idle time in Unity practices.
“She always keeps us on our toes and makes sure every practice stays productive,” Billman said.
Wedel is an advocate of the practice-like-you-play philosophy.
“If you’re afraid to dive in practice, you’ll be afraid to dive in a game,” she said.
Sullivan is not surprised that Wedel is coaching.
“She really loves the game and has a lot of enthusiasm,” Sullivan said. “She was well-coached throughout her younger playing career, and you can see she is excited to give back to the sport.”
Sullivan said she didn’t need to give Wedel any advice but offered a reminder.
“The kids come first,” Sullivan said. “Find out what motivates and inspires them, and have fun. Always enjoy what you are doing.”
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Meanwhile, at Blue Ridge, Cervantes is enjoying his first foray into high school coaching. He took over as baseball coach of a program that was 4-21 last year and has the team at 7-10 this spring.
For him, the win-loss record is not what’s most critical.
“My biggest reward from coaching these boys is watching them grow,” Cervantes said. “I have seen tremendous leaps and strides in every player that is on the team, just in the discipline aspect.
“I have them say, ‘Yes, sir, no, sir,’ with every question I ask them. They know if they are disrespectful in school, the whole team has punishments. These little moments like this are what impress me most, to watch these boys grow into respectful and successful men.”
Cervantes, who was on the UI baseball team as a sophomore, calls respect a two-way street.
“I feel that they look at me with their utmost respect because I give them respect,” Cervantes said. “I can trust every kid that is on my high school team, and I know when they are lying.
“I was in high school not too long ago, so I know the mind games, the way they think, how they try to get out of class early, but I do not let stuff like that slide.
“I am very serious when it comes to the boys’ academics because I want all of them to be college-bound when they graduate. That is the most important thing by far, school, then baseball.”
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One area where Wedel saw a need for improvement is in the comprehension of game situations. She has asked the players to tackle that assignment themselves.
“A lot of kids don’t understand how the game works,” Wedel said. “I’m trying to get them immersed. I have them watch ‘SportsCenter’ every night and write a paragraph (about something they learned) at least once a week.”
Some of the comments, she said, have been insightful. The coach sees signs in games that they are grasping situations.
“They’re learning the tricks,” she said. “They know if they’re on second base and the ball is in the air, they need to tag up. We don’t need to tell them that.”
The result, Clark said, is a transformation.
“It’s hard to pinpoint one thing when she has really helped us in every aspect of the game,” Clark said. “From our attitudes off the field to our overall dynamics, she’s taught us a lot.”
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Wedel wants her players to succeed and to have fun, but not at the expense of creating a social environment when the team gathers.
“I can be a cool coach, but when I need to be mean, I can be mean,” she said.
Unity players have learned not to push the boundaries.
“She is easygoing in the sense that she wants us to have fun but still take the game seriously,” Krutsinger said. “She can definitely be scary when she wants to be, so we all try staying on her good side.”
More than anything, Wedel said, “I am very honest, very upfront and easily relatable.”
Her squad members appreciate her approachability.
“We have a coach that we can go to for absolutely anything, whether it’s softball, school or whatever else,” Clark said.
Wedel said her age helps her to relate to the various issues the teenagers may have.
“I’ve been in those situations, where you’re stressed out about school, boys or the color of prom dress you’ll wear,” she said.
“She understands how it feels to be in our shoes at our age,” Krutsinger said.
The camaraderie on the team is more than between the players. Wedel feels a part of the bond as well.
“I think of these kids as my kids,” she said. “When (sophomore) Avery Tolliver came up and got a big hit (against Paxton-Buckley-Loda), and saw the time and energy paying off, I felt like crying.”
The feelings go both ways, Billman said.
“Unity Rockets softball is not just a team,” Billman said. “It’s a family.”
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Many of the points that Wedel is emphasizing at Unity are similar to the ones Cervantes is focusing on at Blue Ridge. It’s not because they are trying to copy one another.
“Kelley and I have the same coaching philosophy because we were taught the game the same exact way,” Cervantes said. “She is ‘old school’ and so am I.”
It’s among the reasons they are so compatible.
“I am very pleased that I found a girl that knows the game,” Cervantes said. “It is ironic. She and I are very alike. We coach the same, we have the same sense of humor and we have an unbelievable passion for the game.”
Also, neither one enrolled at the UI with their eyes set on coaching. Cervantes originally planned on becoming an athletic trainer.
“As I continued throughout school I figured that was not my route,” he said. “Thus, I thought of coaching. I personally cannot work behind a desk every day. That’s not me. I need to be active, and I love to be around the baseball or the softball diamonds. I always tell myself that any day around the ball field is a day worth living.”
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Though Wedel might not have projected herself as a coach a few years ago, there’s no turning back now.
She completed her UI coursework in December but plans to return to college to get a degree in secondary education, which will allow her to be a classroom teacher.
“Nothing can compare to putting on an Illini jersey,” she said, “but this is the next-best thing. I love it. I can’t see myself separated from it. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
It’s also appropriate that her future husband (they’ve set a wedding date for September 2014) has similar passions.
“That’s what makes us the couple we are,” Wedel said. “We were brought together by sports.”
Her dogs — Wrigley and Brooklyn — reinforce that theme.
There’s plenty to talk about when the coaching day comes to an end.
“The first conversation we have is, ‘How did your team do? What happened? Who pitched? How was the base running?’ ” Wedel said.
The frustration, Cervantes said, is that they are not able to more closely follow each other’s team.
“She knows that my passion is coaching, and she is in the same boat,” Cervantes said. “We are both chasing dreams, which we cannot get upset about. I want her to be the most successful coach in softball history because she deserves it.
“Every chance I get, you bet that I am on the side of the dugout watching her do her thing, and she is the same way with my high school team. We balance each other out.”
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette’s prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @fredkroner.