Last fall, former standout SIU shortstop Kelsey Gonzalez stepped into the vacant assistant coaching position on the team. While Gonzalez is new to the role, she is no stranger to Saluki softball or Southern Illinois University.

Gonzalez has spent five and a half years at SIU. From 2013-16, Gonzalez played shortstop for the Salukis. Following graduation, she chose to remain at SIU in pursuit of her Master of Business Administration. She was hired as a graduate assistant in Saluki Athletics' business office and softball coach Kerri Blaylock asked Gonzalez to take a role as a student assistant.

Gonzalez helped the team to the 2017 Missouri Valley Conference Tournament Championship and its 10th NCAA Tournament appearance in May. In the summer, assistant coach Katie Wagner left the team, which opened the door to Gonzalez. She became a full-time assistant coach barely a year after her playing career ended.

"I never imagined that I'd already be a coach here," Gonzalez said. "The whole thing kind of evolved. I never even thought I'd go to grad school, but Kerri [Blaylock] mentioned it to me and talked me through the opportunities and I decided to go. That evolved into a GA spot in the business office, then that evolved into a coaching role. Kerri told me last year that I'd make a great coach. I never thought it would come about like this, but I'm grateful that it did."

As a player, Gonzalez was a four-year starter for the Salukis. The Bolingbrook native was a team captain her junior and senior years. She hit .283 with nine home runs, 65 RBI and 24 steals. Her 113 runs scored had her in a tie for ninth all-time at SIU by the end of her career.

Gonzalez was a three-time member of the MVC's Scholar-Athlete Teams and was awarded the MVC Commissioner's Excellence Award after the 2015 season for her achievements in the classroom and on the field.

"The friendships that I made in my playing career are really one of a kind," she said. "I still keep in touch with at least 10 of the girls that I played with, and we're all over the country now. I've made some pretty unique friendships here, and those are people that I will stay in touch with forever."

An interesting aspect of Gonzalez's new role has much to do with how recently she wore and SIU uniform. Five players she now coaches were her teammates when she was a senior. Making the jump from player to coach is tricky, but can be even tougher as a former teammate. Gonzalez said that relationship actually eased the transition from player to coach.

That link makes her a liaison between the players and the coaches. Gonzalez understands the rigors of being a student-athlete and is familiar with the Saluki way of doing things.

With Gonzalez as the team's student-assistant last year, the Salukis won the MVC Tournament, something Gonzalez was never able to achieve as a player.

"I think I was just as excited as the girls were," Gonzalez said. "It's a pretty unique experience. When it's happening, you don't really realize it while its happened, then all of a sudden there's two outs in the seventh inning. It's cool to experience that in some way, even though I never did it as a player."

Gonzalez has an expanded role as the Salukis prepare for another NCAA tournament run. She works with the hitters and is responsible for infield defense. She will be the first base coach and plays a critical role in recruiting. Gonzalez is also responsible for scheduling travel.

In the meantime, she will be completing her MBA. This is her final semester as a graduate student. She's not concerned about a balancing act with her coaching and student responsibilities.

Gonzalez has spent nearly a quarter of her life as a member of the Saluki softball program.

"Kerri and (associate coach) Jen (Sewell) have done a lot for me," she said. "I'm excited I get to work alongside them now. When I was a player Jen always pushed me to be better because she knew what I was capable of. She pushed me to next level pretty quickly and I don't know if I would have ever performed as well as I did.

"The way that Kerri runs our program is like a business. She has high expectations for everyone. As far as academics, athletics and time management, she expects all of that out of you at the highest level. Those skills will be with me forever. She instilled that in all of us, and you want to make her proud. I don't know if I ever would have gone to grad school without her. She teaches you things that make you better every day."

The Salukis start the 2018 season with a doubleheader on Feb. 9 against Abilene Christian and Texas-San Antonio.

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