Chico State’s top hitter and First-Team All-Conference star Britt Wright has a strong recall of the Wildcat’s first practice last season.
Former Sonora great Kelli Keefe, class of 2011, bats for Chico State during its 2012 season. In her first year of collegiate softball, Keefe started 24 contests and led Chico in stolen bases. COURTESY PHOTO.
“I will never forget this,” says Wright. “There’s 12 of us seniors out on the practice field, nine of us are starters, and at our first practice in the fall season, freshman Kelli Keefe is playing shortstop. There’s a smash line-drive right up the middle and Kelli makes this incredible dive and gloves the ball, gets to her feet, makes the play and then she’s all nonchalant about it. Well, the rest of us were saying, ‘Damn!’ and ‘Did you see that?’
“She came onto our team like a fire-spark and that never stopped. All of us seniors appreciated her. She has the energy and bubbling personality of 10 people. Kelli doesn’t know how to be in a bad mood. This was not an easy team to break into for playing time as a freshman but Kelli, with her versatility, talent and attitude, ended up being a huge part of our team.”
After a magnificent three-year varsity career at Sonora High, capped by earning 2011 All-Area Co-Most Valuable Player honors, Keefe played in 42 of Chico’s 53 contests in 2012 and started 24 — including the Wildcats’ NCAA first-round contest.
Keefe had a 2012 on-base percentage of .308, hit .232 and, most notably, led her team in stolen bases, swiping 10 bags in 11 attempts.
“I’m not surprised that Kelli led her team in stolen bases as a freshman,” said Summerville 21-year head softball coach Ben Watson. “What I appreciated the most about Kelli was the approach she always had towards the game — she loved it. She always had a smile on her face and you could just see that she was enjoying playing the game and competing. It was refreshing to watch her play — and play so well.”
“Kelli leading her team in stolen bases doesn’t surprise me in the slightest,” said Sonora athletic director Rick Francis. “And there’s not a doubt in my mind that she led Chico State in some other categories, too. While they don’t keep count, I’m certain that she led her team in showing a positive attitude, helping team camaraderie and being a team player.
“Before Kelli even got to high school, I could tell that she had this drive and determination that was unique. And once she started playing sports for us, her work ethic just jumped right out at you. Yes, she had talent. But she took those tools and skills and kept running with them. I’m thrilled — but not at all surprised — that she’s already enjoying success playing college softball.”
“The whole first-year experience was awesome,” said Keefe. “I finally conquered my goal. I had wanted to play college softball since I was 8-years old.”
Keefe’s megawatt smile, impossibly-quick speed, strong bat and wizardry infield play made a fast impression on the Chico coaching staff.
“Well, first of all,” says Amy Hillel, a 10-year NCAA assistant coach who was at Chico last season, “Kelli is a coach’s dream. If I was a head coach with my own team I would want all Kelli Keefes.
“In the fall season, in her first-ever scrimmage game — I think it was against Sac State or another D-I school — in her first at-bat, Kelli smacks a double and my heart jumped. She was a freshman who never blinked. Right then, I knew we had someone special. She showed up every day with a great attitude. She can hit the ball over the fence and field any position. That she led our team in stolen bases as a freshman was a great accomplishment and a reflection of her abilities to always get a good jump and read the opposition well.”
“Kelli has a lot of speed and stealing all those bases for us when we needed them was huge,” said Chico four-year head coach Angel Shamblin. “As the season went on, teams had her scouted and knew she could run. But even when they knew her, Kelli could still get a good jump, use her speed and go.
“Overall, she was a great addition to our team. She did well defensively and was especially effective in the middle of the infield. At the plate, her strength is she’s versatile. She can bunt, power slap and hit for power.”
Chico was 35-18 in 2012, finishing third in the always-strong California Collegiate Athletic Association, and earned a slot in the NCAA Division II West Regional Championships.
“It was pretty cool getting to play in an NCAA tournament game,” said Keefe, who batted second and played shortstop in Chico’s 1-0 loss to Sonoma State. “It was like a long-held dream of mine became a reality.
“But, overall, I just felt so honored to be a part of a great team. I looked up to all of our seniors. They were like big sisters to me.”
“Kelli’s bright attitude spread to our whole team,” said Hillel. “She got sick in the fall and had to miss practice. Well, you could immediately tell Kelli wasn’t at that practice because there was this big lull out there. We were missing her enthusiasm.”
“More than just an athlete,” said Francis, “Kelli is a very, very special person. I loved seeing that big smile of hers. And then, of course, once a game began and she was done smiling — and you’d see those teeth grinding — you knew she was gonna get after it.”
“I have no doubts that Kelli will continue to grow as a collegiate athlete,” said Hillel. “While the catchers all know now that she wants to steal, the flip side is that Kelli will be able to get inside those catchers’ heads — by faking a steal. She’ll be drawing a lot of attention from those catchers and getting them all worried.
“Her smoothness in the infield is such a huge strength, too. She gets to everything and can get rid of that ball so fast.”
“Having a year under her belt will go a long way for Kelli,” said Shamblin. “We lost a lot of seniors from our team of last season and we’re, basically, starting over. I think Kelli will do very well this upcoming season.”
Keefe is spending the summer in Sonora. She’s working at a restaurant, playing in a women’s collegiate softball league, and working out five times a week.
“I want to get even faster with my running,” said Keefe. “I know we lost our second baseman to graduation and that’s a position I enjoy playing. I do want to improve my batting average from last season by a lot. Hopefully, with more at-bats, I can do that. We’ll be a young team but I still think we’ll do well.”
“Having just graduated, I’ll miss getting to play with Kelli,” said Wright. “But what I’m already excited about is coming back to visit when Kelli is a senior and she’s the top player on the team. Actually, when I think more about it, when I come back to visit next year, and Kelli is just a sophomore, she could already be our top player.”
Weekly Arts and entertainment guide for Calaveras and Tuolumne counties