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updated: 3/31/2011 10:47 PM

Former foes taking the reins at Neuqua, Waubonsie

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Melissa Wilson said the name Aly Kelley sounded familiar.

Melissa's name didn't ring a bell to Aly, but then she went by Melissa Kennedy in high school at Lake Park.

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They will know each other better soon enough.

Wilson and Kelley are two of the newest softball coaches in the area this spring, Wilson at Neuqua Valley and Kelley at Waubonsie Valley.

Both also played at rival schools in high school. Wilson graduated from Lake Park in 2003, Kelley from Waubonsie a year later. No doubt they crossed paths on the softball diamond.

Now they're both first-time head coaches, the youngest in DuPage County.

"I knew I always wanted it to happen and hopefully an opportunity would open up soon," Kelley said, "but no, I never thought so soon. It's nice to start off at a familiar place."

The two young coaches walk into two very different situations.

Neuqua won its first regional championship last year, part of a 25-win season, and has five Division I players in its starting lineup. Waubonsie has had just one winning season since 2002 -- Kelley's sophomore year -- and is a much younger team.

Wilson has fond memories of her playing days. As a senior she helped pitch Lake Park to the Class AA championship game. She always wanted to teach, and the coaching bug hit post-high school.

She assisted at her alma mater Benedictine University, then at Neuqua last year. With Elaina Tanaka giving birth to her first child earlier this year, Wilson was promoted to interim head coach.

"I always liked the whole competitive nature, the different ways to operate a game," said Wilson, married last July. "This is a dream come true."

Kelley, a two-time all-conference catcher at Waubonsie, was the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference Player of the Year at St. Xavier in 2008.

She got her start coaching that year with the Sparks softball organization. In 2009, fresh out of college, she coached the Waubonsie freshman.

She enjoyed the chance to make all the decisions, plan all the practices and most importantly the freedom to mold and shape young players.

Fundamentals were a big focus of Kelley's when she coached the freshmen, and they still are.

"Our first 45 minutes of practice we do the same thing every day -- in fact, we call them our 'Every Days'" Kelley said. "We want to get touches on the ball, looking the ball all the way into the glove, focusing on those fundamentals."

Interestingly, Kelley's assistant at Waubonsie is the man who taught her some of those first fundamentals -- her dad, Kerry. Kerry Kelley has taught physical education at Waubonsie for 11 years, coached basketball at Waubonsie and East Aurora and is also an official.

"The best thing about it is I can say whatever I want to him, and he's my dad," Aly Kelley said. "Between the two of us there is no sugar-coating."

It is refreshing, and healthy for the sport of softball, to promote young, energetic women to move these programs into the future.

Of the 28 schools in DuPage County, 13 now have women as head coaches of their varsity softball teams. All of them were promoted within the last eight years.

"It's nice to just have a positive female role model, someone you can go to and trust and hopefully learn from," Wilson said. "I have experienced a lot of the things that they are experiencing."

Kelley said playing the game so recently is a huge help.

She pointed to dramatic changes in softball the last few years that put her ahead of the curve strategically.

"A lot of the coaches in that old softball era, you get a girl on base and they say you always have to bunt her over. Now there are 20 other ways to move runners," she said. "Softball has changed and progressed in so many ways. I played through that, and it makes it a lot easier to coach."

Wilson feels a connection with her pitchers and can identify what their bodies are going through in the day-to-day grind. She's been through it.

Those vivid memories of playing days, and the lessons she learned from her coaches, are with her as she begins a new challenge.

"I still remember what it feels like to be part of a team and to be part of something special," Wilson said. "I remember wanting my coach to make it a great experience for me. I have such a clear picture of how I felt when I was in their shoes. It helps me to this day."

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