May 11, 2017
By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Kelly Christner can do more to win a big game than any Wolverine, and the versatile senior begins her final postseason run Friday (May 12) in the University of Michigan's Big Ten Tournament opener at Alumni Field.
Wolverines coach Carol Hutchins recalled spotting her as an NFCA All-America first-team performer in 2013 at Tinley Park (Illinois) Andrew High, where she was a four-time Chicago Tribune All-State selection.
Time has flown by, along with two trips to the Women's College World Series, where Christner homered in her first at-bat, three Big Ten regular-season championships and her memorable sophomore season, when she was an NFCA and Louisville Slugger All-America first team outfielder.
Christner has developed into one of the best players Hutchins has coached -- ranking in the school's career Top 10 with a .364 batting average, 186 hits, 38 homers, a .628 slugging percentage and 93 walks -- while being four away from that ranking group with 156 RBI.
The legendary coach smiled when recalling the beginning.
"Kelly was one of those kids that when you see her on the recruiting trail, it's like you've got to have her," said Hutchins. "She can run. She's got power. She's got an arm. She is a versatile athlete.
"And when Kelly is on her game, she's as good as anyone in the country. So, we just need her to be on her game. We need her to be consistent. She's been a little inconsistent over her career and this year. But if anyone has come along in the last three weeks, it's Kelly Christner."
Hutchins moved her into the leadoff position at the start of the team's recent turnaround that began with her benching five starters after losing a 1-0 game the day before at Wisconsin.
Christner came off the bench to belt a three-run homer against the Badgers in the next game that resulted in a blowout victory, and Michigan has gone 9-0 while awakening its sleeping offense with 88 runs in those games.
"I think (Hutchins) was just honestly trying to switch it up," Christner said. "What we were doing wasn't working, and she was trying to switch up the lineup. That wasn't working, and I think she just got into a mode where, 'I'm going to do something completely out of the box,' and it worked.
"It kind of lit a fire under all of us, and we started playing with a little more passion and aggression."
Christner's hitting .444 with a .500 on-base percentage, .852 slugging percentage, two doubles, three homers and seven RBI in those nine games.
That's some leadoff production.
"You know," said Hutchins, "she can be a scary leadoff hitter. She bunts and likes to bunt, and then she's on second base (with a steal) and that's better than a double. And I think she can hit more doubles. We take her any way we can get it, and she's a tough person to pitch to the first at-bat of the game. And she's responded to it; she seems to like it."
Christner said, "I've batted three, seven and six (in the batting order) this year. Finally, I was put into the leadoff spot. But I just try to go into every at-bat with the same mind-set and not try to think differently in different spots. But with all the tools I have, I think I can use them more in the leadoff spot and try to keep the defense off balance. I like it and I like having Abby (Ramirez) behind me. It's working well so far."
Ramirez, her classmate, roommate and friend for half of their lives, is a fixture at shortstop and has scored 177 runs with a career batting average of .351.
"We had our 10-year friendiversary last summer," said Christner, who turns 22 next month. "We met when we were 11 and played on the Chi Town Express, our travel team. I lived in Pennsylvania and moved to Tinley, and literally the day that we moved in, we had practice and Abby was the first person I met in Illinois.
"We ended up going on our visits to Michigan without even knowing the other one would be there. I walked up and said, 'Wow, what are you doing here?' It's been crazy, and it's sad that this is actually our last go-round together with all the history we've had."
Christner and pitching ace Megan Betsa were chosen in the National Pro Softball draft, and Christner will join long-time teammate Sierra Romero, the 2016 national player of the year, on the USSSA Pride if she elects to play.
"I still haven't decided," said Christner, who studied movement science, graduates in the fall, and would like to pursue a graduate degree in physical therapy. "I want to focus on this season and see how that plays out. But it obviously was a huge honor. I was shocked."
Romero was a superstar player and remained a true team player despite all the national accolades she received. But there was no denying the Wolverines were a different team without the hands-down greatest player in program history, and perhaps lacked a true identity until this hot streak.
Christner said the thing she's proudest of about the teams she's played on "is how we've been able to handle adversity," and this squad's challenge was learning how to play without Romero.
"This is the first year that it's really based on every single person working at getting better on their part and doing their part," said Christner. "It's not just one person carrying us, and that's how we were struggling a little in the beginning. And I think we've really found our groove."
Christner moved from left to center field this year to take the place of ultra-talented Sierra Lawrence.
"She knew coming in (this season) that she was going to have to anchor the outfield," said Hutchins, "and she's done a great job out there for us."
Christner's a five-tool player who can hit for average and power, field and throw with prowess, and run with the best.
She can hit a tape-measure homer, drop down a bunt single or steal a base.
"That's obviously helped me out a lot," she said. "Last year, I wasn't hitting as well and I was able to use the short game a lot more. It always gives me comfort that if my swing isn't going well, I can always go to that."
Her father, Randy, was a shortstop at Cornell and her mother, Julie, also played college soccer. Older sister Katie was an accomplished outfielder at Wisconsin, one class ahead of Kelly.
Growing up in a "sports family" nurtured her athleticism, and her father and sister have been able to hone in on her game.
"My dad, especially, was able to help me and make me into the player that I am," said Kelly. "He knows my swing better than anyone, and so does Katie. I can go to them for advice and how to tweak my swing. They can see the one little thing that gets me out of a slump."
She also credited Hutchins and assistants Bonnie Tholl and Jennifer Brundage -- pointing out that both could easily be outstanding head coaches -- for "having a great impact" on her and "teaching us so much about softball but also just about being good people."
Christner's accomplished plenty, but said being named an All-American for both playing and academics means the most to her.
"It shows that I put a focus on academics as well as my softball," said Christner.
And her favorite moment so far?
"I hit a home run in my first at-bat in the World Series," said Christner, recalling that shot against Alabama two years ago. "That's probably my fondest memory just because it was a weight off your shoulders.
"It's nerve-wracking playing in front of that many people, and that atmosphere is insane. Nothing else compares. But it made me realize that it's the same game whether you are playing in front of five people or 10,000."
She's learned that the strike zone never changes even though venues do.
"It's been an amazing four years," she said, "and I'm looking to finish strong, enjoying every minute of it no matter what happens."
Hutchins passed us while we spoke, smiled and said, "Keep going for as long as you possibly can!"
Christner laughed and said, "Exactly - forever and ever."
Sign up for Michigan Insider to be the first to learn about 2018 Michigan softball ticket opportunities.