Dunne The Mechanic Working Hard For MSU Softball
SEC Digital Network
STARKVILLE, Miss. - Her workspace is a softball diamond in the heart of the Magnolia State. Her tools don't come in a handy metal box and her primary vehicle is communication instead of a vintage automobile. But make no mistake about it; Kelsi Dunne is Mississippi State's mechanic.
Arguably the most decorated pitcher in the history of University of Alabama softball, Dunne has thrived in a new role this season - as the volunteer assistant coach for her mentor Vann Stuedeman's Bulldogs, working primarily with the squad's pitching staff.
Dunne may be in her first season coaching college softball, but her approach to her job is so unique, it seems as if she and her current role were meant to be.
"She is a fantastic teacher," Stuedeman said. "I relate it to this: If you're driving around in a car and you hear a noise, hear something banging, you think something is wrong. So you're going to look under the hood and if you think it might just be a hose, you'll let it go. When you take it to the mechanic, he points right to it. He knows exactly what it is, fixes it and you don't hear the noise any more. It's the same with Kelsi - she is a teacher of mechanics and can spot something right off."
But unlike a typical technician, there is more to the fix than a simple repair. That's where the teaching part comes in: Dunne can easily pinpoint what needs to be altered, but for that awareness to spell success, she must effectively communicate that information to the athletes she is coaching, and do so in a way they can understand and implement.
"Not only does Kelsi know exactly what needs to be tinkered or adjusted, she also knows how to relay that to the pitcher," Stuedeman said. "Some people know how to pick things up, but don't know how to teach it; other people know how to teach it, but may not pick things up as quickly. Kelsi's got both and that really sets her apart. She's very good at scouting opponents and knowing hitters' weaknesses and tendencies. She is very helpful in those areas. She just has a great ability to teach and pick up what needs to be taught."
Living in the moment.
It's an impressive ability that Dunne has that keeps her grounded and focused on her goals. For that reason, it wasn't surprising that she hadn't spent much time thinking about her future career.
"It's funny," Dunne laughed. "When I was playing at Alabama, I honestly didn't even think about my future. All I was focused on was what I needed to do for my team and how I could help our program be successful. I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, all my focus was on what I needed to do for my teammates and coaches."
The numbers don't lie.
Dunne was a two-time Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year (2010, 2011) during her decorated four-year career at Alabama, where she helped lead her school to three Women's College World Series appearances.
Dunne finished as the school's all-time leader in strikeouts with 1,219, while also holding the school records for career strikeouts per inning (9.82) and lowest opponent batting average (.165). The Crimson Tide compiled an overall record of 217-41 (.841) during Dunne's time in Tuscaloosa.
Stuedeman, who spent 11 seasons overseeing the pitching staff at Alabama, was Dunne's pitching coach during her entire playing career.
"She is arguably the best pitcher in Alabama softball history and one of the best pitchers of all time," Stuedeman said. "She led Alabama to three World Series and took them farther in the tournament than any other pitcher had. She was a two-time SEC Pitcher of the Year and what she did for Alabama softball was incredible."
Stuedeman says that Dunne has abilities - both mentally and athletically - that few athletes possess.
"She can do just about anything with the ball," Stuedeman said. "She is super talented. One of the best qualities about Kelsi is that she can read the hitter and she has a great gut instinct in what the hitter may or not be looking for. She knows how to pitch, not throw, and she can spin it and spot it. She knows how to pitch to her strengths and play against her weaknesses to help her strengths. She is a very smart lady and, as a pitcher, she was amazing to coach. I told her every year she was one of the best pitchers I had ever coached or been around."
And it is largely because of Dunne's success and abilities that she is able to relate to Mississippi State's currently players in a way that few could.
"I think her reputation, especially being fresh out of school, speaks for itself," Stuedeman said. "Having played in this league and competed against these same athletes brought her immediate respect. The girls were instantly wanting to learn from her. She is their age and they feel like they connect with her right off the bat. I can talk about things, but our players didn't watch me perform or not perform in those situations. Our team watched Kelsi experiencing the exact same things and that has really created a unique atmosphere."
Dunne agrees, saying the experience factor has gone a long way in helping her communicate and teach the squad's pitching staff.
"One thing that you obviously can't teach is experience," Dunne said. "We've experienced a lot as a team together this year - we've experienced success and failure. The more experience we have together, the more we will learn. But Vann and I, coming from the SEC and being around these teams and players, bring a lot of experience that has helped them because they've just been buying into it."
Call it an early Christmas present, if you will.
That's about the time when Dunne received the call from Stuedeman asking if she wanted to join the coaching staff at Mississippi State as the squad's volunteer assistant.
"I was my master's degree at Alabama right now in sport management and I needed to do an internship," Dunne said. "She knew that and reached out to me. Thankfully, she made it happen and everything worked out with Mississippi State and everyone else."
Stuedeman said it was a no-brainer to bring aboard Dunne, who earned her master's degree from the University of Alabama this past weekend.
"She was looking for an internship, and I said 'Why not come over here and do it with Mississippi State softball?'" Stuedeman said. "She was all about it and I couldn't have been happier. I knew right from the beginning that she was going to be a huge asset to our program. She got the position approved through the master's program she was in at Alabama. They were just so excited for her to have the opportunity."
Dunne has had to balance her work schedule with two classes that she was taking to complete her master's degree. One of the classes she was taking online and one she got approval to complete on a distance-learning basis.
"Kelsi started in January and she has done a great job juggling her master's classes and all of the projects that need to be turned in, as well as her internship with us," Stuedeman said. "I know she's going to be as successful in life as she was on the softball field. She does a really good job at juggling tasks and understanding what's important and pertinent and must be done now."
Stuedeman couldn't hardly believe her eyes when she compared the two pictures at dinner that night in Oklahoma City a few years back.
"One time, we were at the World Series and had all gone out to dinner," Stuedeman said. "Kelsi was sitting in a whole different section of the restaurant. The photographer traveling with us came and took a picture of me eating chocolate cake and I had taken a big piece of cake and put it on my fork and posed with it by my mouth like I was about to eat it. He goes and takes a picture of Kelsi in the other part of the restaurant and she was doing the exact same thing. It was almost like I'd told her how to pose."
That just scratches the surface of the bond between the coach and her former pitcher.
There is always going to be a special relationship in that situation, but for Dunne and Stuedeman, it transcends the softball field and has made the pair great coaching companions.
"When I played for Vann, we went to war together," Dunne said. "We learned so much from each other. She taught me so much about the game of softball as a player and so much about life on and off the field. She has taught me so many different aspects of softball and of life that I can take with me and I trust her with everything that I have."
Stuedeman agrees, saying their shared experiences helped bring them closer and have made them a perfect pair in the dugout for Mississippi State.
"When you fight hard with someone, go through surgeries and fight through criticism and you experience the highs and lows of the sport, you develop a bond because you know that person is going to be there for you through thick and thin," Stuedeman said. "We spent a lot of time in the bullpen, just me and her and the bullpen catcher. It's a bonding experience and it's something that's hard to describe in words because it's been a relationship that has been built out of trust, and of trials and tribulations."
Dunne was a part of some big victories at perennial-power Alabama, but in her current role, she has had the opportunity to watch Stuedeman resurrect the softball program at Mississippi State. The same great qualities in Stuedeman that she learned from as a student-athlete are those that she now sees shine in her mentor as a head coach.
"One of Vann's goals has been just to create a new culture and every single person has bought in; that's why we are where we are," Dunne said. "I definitely think it is all about trust. We all know that we're a family and we all trust each other. We know that to get anywhere, we all have to be on the same page, not three or four different pages."
What has been accomplished already this season speaks for itself. The Bulldogs, despite facing the fourth-toughest schedule in the country, have eclipsed 30 victories for the first time since 2008 and have broken the school record for most road victories in a single season. Stuedeman has tallied the best winning percentage by a first-year head coach in program history and her athletes have essentially re-written the school's record book.
Stuedeman says that Dunne has been a critical component to those accomplishments this year.
"She has been imperative to our success," Stuedeman said. "She has just brought a work-ethic mentality. She is able to be almost like a football scout team for our offense. She gets out there and will throw pitches we feel like we are going to see each weekend. She has been vital to our success."
As for Dunne, she has enjoyed every moment of it.
"I think what I like most about coaching is being able to help and prepare the girls to be successful each weekend, and see them getting better each day," Dunne said. "It is so rewarding to know that the girls buy into what you're doing each and every day to be successful."
For Stuedeman, who values family and friends above all else, it has just been another chapter in her friendship with Dunne.
"We've had a lot of great moments and I will always cherish them," Stuedeman said. "I am happy to call her a friend."
What: SEC Softball Tournament
Who: No. 8 Seed Mississippi State vs. No. 1 Seed Alabama
Where: Rhoads Stadium (Tuscaloosa, Ala.)
When: Thursday, May 10, 2012, 7 p.m. CT
Noting The Bulldogs: Mississippi State is 33-21 overall and concluded the SEC regular-season with a 12-16 mark ... It is the Bulldogs' first 30-plus-win season since 2008 ... Mississippi State is 11-19 all-time in SEC Tournament games, including a 1-5 tally against Alabama ... Head coach Vann Stuedeman has compiled the best record of any first-year coach in MSU history.