Keefe makes strong first impression at Chico St.

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.

"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."

11877494
The Union Democrat
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