Ice breakers were always hard for Kelsey Susalla. The junior Michigan softball player could never find the right words for an answer.
“Those are the (questions) I always struggle with,” Susalla said. “In class, they’re like ‘tell us something interesting about yourself’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’ ”
The question applied to the softball field as well. She didn’t know her identity there, either.
A few weeks after Florida State eliminated the Wolverines from the 2014 NCAA Super Regional with a heartbreaking walk-off home run, Susalla stepped into coach Carol Hutchins’ office.
It was her turn to have the end-of-the-season meeting that Hutchins conducts with every player on her roster.
Susalla’s first message was to be expected — she wanted to get more playing time, and she would do whatever it took to earn it.
The second message, however, was not so predictable.
“She came to me and said, ‘I’d like to try the outfield.’ ” Hutchins said.
Susalla had not played a single inning of her softball career in the outfield. Until high school, she consistently played second base, and at Garden City High School, she was converted into a first and third baseman.
Garden City coach Barry Patterson even played Susalla at pitcher for her junior and senior year, and she garnered All-State honors at the position.
For her current success, Patterson credited Susalla’s experience in the circle for her attitude on the field.
“(She gained) an understanding of what it means to be that person,” Patterson said. “Every single play and every eye in the park starts with you. You’re such a big factor. I think part of the demeanor that she has of never getting rattled (comes from her experience pitching). You can’t pitch from an emotional standpoint. You just have to fight through adversity.”
Susalla also set career records for runs scored, batting average, hits, home runs, doubles and triples in her tenure at Garden City, but in her first two years at Michigan, she struggled to consistently etch her name into the lineup.
She played just 36 and 34 games in 2013 and 2014, respectively — about half of the total contests the Wolverines played those seasons. Over the course of those 70 games, Susalla started in just 20.
So as Susalla entered that office, she knew an opportunity was there for her taking, and she wasn’t about to let it slip through her fingers
“I thought since we were losing a couple outfielders with that graduating class, that opens a spot up for me,” Susalla said. “I just asked if I could work on it over the summer. I would take extra fly balls, get some outfield work in with my throws, anything like that.”
The outfielders who had graduated left Susalla with large shoes to fill.
Among the graduating class were Lyndsay Doyle, Nicole Sappingfield and Katie Luetkens. Both Sappingfield and Doyle played every game in the outfield for the Wolverines in 2014.
Michigan’s leadoff hitter, Doyle, posted a .369 batting average, while Sappingfield boasted a .402 and .431 batting average and on-base percentage, respectively.
Though Luetkens played just nine games in 2014, she was a team captain with Sappingfield and had spent her whole career in the outfield.
Luetkens mentored Susalla, spending time with her last summer. The bulk of the time was spent on the field, as the veteran hit fly balls to Susalla and fine-tuned her fielding technique.
“(The most difficult part) was reading the ball off the bat,” Susalla said. “When you’re in the infield, you’re a lot closer to the batter. You can see if it’s going to be a line drive, ground ball or pop up. But in the outfield, a good 50 to 60 feet further back, along with the wind and sun, judging the ball (was tough).”
Susalla had the opportunity to apply her newly developed talent in game situations prior to the 2015 campaign. Per her request, she was occasionally deployed to the outfield with her travel team, the Kalamazoo Hooters, over the summer.
Susalla’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed by her teammates.
“She’s honestly one of the most hard-working people I’ve ever met,” said sophomore pitcher Megan Betsa. “I saw it this summer. I stayed (in the offseason) and she was here also. She was (on the field) and Olivia Richvalsky’s dad came. He would just hit her fly balls, and she was out there working hard every day because that’s what she wanted to do. She wanted to play.
“She earned her spot, and she’s keeping it up. She still comes in every day.”
With her position finally solidified, Susalla has been thriving.
She has started 28 of 29 games this year, and her stat line has been exceptional.
Susalla has already eclipsed her season totals in all major batting categories from her freshman and sophomore season. In 77 at-bats, she has recorded six home runs and 30 RBI, while posting a staggering .792 slugging percentage. On top of that, Susalla boasts a .390 batting average with nine doubles.
Most notably, the junior seems to be at home in right field. Susalla has not recorded an error this season and has shown flashes of brilliance — she robbed Alabama of a momentum-shifting home run at the Easton Bama Bash by making a spectacular play at the wall.
But Susalla’s position and performance aren’t the only things that have dramatically changed this season. As her teammates explained, their first impression of Susalla was that she was quiet and shy. But Susalla is quickly emerging as a leader for the Wolverines. She arrives early to practice every day for batting practice, and sets an example for her teammates, who are feeding off of her energy.
“She’s like that blue-collar kid that comes in with her lunch bucket,” Hutchins said. “(She) just is trying to do her part. She doesn’t have these huge expectations, she’s just working hard. She’s had to work really hard to get this opportunity, and she’s taking advantage of it.”
Added junior infielder Sierra Romero: “Her confidence, it has improved like crazy. From her freshman and sophomore year to her junior year, she’s just continued to get better and continued to become more of a dominant power hitter.”
Susalla was a first baseman. She was a second baseman. She was a third baseman. She was even a pitcher.
But now, Susalla finally knows who she is. She’s found her identity.
She’s the starting right fielder for the No. 4 team in the nation.