Florida softball’s Kelly Barnhill has Olympic aspirations, but she’s after NCAA title now
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — When Kelly Barnhill learned that softball no longer would be part of the Olympics after the 2008 Games, the pitcher ran up to the room of her Marietta, Ga., home and cried.
Barnhill was in middle school at the time. Her now-illustrious softball career was just taking off, but the ultimate goal of her athletic career already seemed to be fading away before she could do anything about it. She was devastated, but that didn’t stop Barnhill from perfecting her game. Over the ensuing decade, she became one of the top prep softball players in the state of Georgia and a hot commodity around the college softball world.
Last summer, prior to the 2016 Olympic Games, the International Olympic Committee voted to bring both softball and baseball back to the biggest stage of sports for 2020.
When Barnhill heard the news, she cried again. This time, though, they were tears of joy.
Barnhill probably will be in Tokyo come 2020, hoping to lead the United States to a gold medal. Until then, though, she will be working to make a lasting impression on the Florida softball program.
Her first two years have been a quality start.
The 20-year-old sophomore has been one of the most dominant players in collegiate softball this season. She has quickly evolved into Florida’s ace and is well on her way to being one of the top pitchers in Florida’s rich softball history.
But with little postseason experience to Barnhill’s name, Florida coach Tim Walton isn’t ready to make any assumptions about her high-end potential just yet.
“It’s too early to say,” Walton said. “She doesn’t have any championships. She hasn’t been to the College World Series. Until we get her on that stage, I think she’s had a fabulous sophomore campaign and I don’t think I can judge it more than that.”
This next month is the time for Barnhill to prove herself. The No. 1 overall seed Gators are preparing to make another deep run in the NCAA Tournament and hope to win their third national championship in four years.
If Florida wants to win it all again, it likely will fall on Barnhill’s right arm.
“She’ll give us a chance to compete,” Walton said. “She’s got such good stuff that it’s really hard to square her up. If she can keep trusting that, we’ll score runs for her.”
Controlling the game
Kelly Barnhill likes having control.
She stands in the circle knowing her next pitch could be the turning point of the game. After she decides on her pitch and prepares her windup, her mind goes blank. She lets out a massive yell as the ball leaves her hand. And then, as her pitch that sometimes touches 70 mph glides through the strike zone and pops off her catcher’s glove, she feels relieved.
Then she does it all over again.
“You have a say in what’s happening every single moment,” Barnhill said.
And if her pitches could talk, they would tell batters to just stay away.
Her go-to pitch is the rise ball, which is essentially an upside-down curveball. Barnhill releases the ball with just enough backspin to make it look like it’s going to end low in the strike zone. However, when the ball is about five feet from the plate, it seems to jump from above the knees to close to eye level. This baffles almost every hitter who comes Barnhill’s way. Strikeouts are almost guaranteed when her mechanics are right.
“She throws so hard and she just has great movement,” Greg Schnute, Barnhill’s former travel ball coach in Georgia, said. “You see the ball and watch it jump. You’re going against some dadgum good hitters in this country and they still strike out and still chase balls.”
It wasn’t always this easy, though.
Schnute, who has run the East Cobb Bullets travel ball team in Georgia for 21 years, saw Barnhill throw for the first time when she was 14. In simplest terms, she had a lot of work to do if she wanted to be good. She was the fourth-best pitcher on her team at best.
“She was extremely wild,” Schnute recalled. “She would throw a pitch up against the top of the screen, then hit 2 batters and then strike out 5 in a row. It was pretty chaotic.”
Six years since that first encounter, Schnute is amazed — not surprised — at how far she has come.
He watched her gain command of her pitches and gain confidence game by game. He watched her lock in on her goals. And he has watched from a distance as she succeeded on the highest levels: In the SEC while at Florida and with the USA Junior National Team in 2015. She will be a member of the of the senior national team for the second straight year this summer.
“I’ve never had a kid work as hard as she did,” Schnute said. “She did something every single day to make herself better and she continues to do that.”
Chris Turco saw the passion immediately.
Turco, Barnhill’s high school softball coach at Marietta’s Pope High, brought Barnhill into his office after she enrolled at the school as a sophomore. Turco’s conversations with new players always start with the same question: What’s your goal?
“Coach, I want to play in the Olympics,” she answered.
“Wow,” Turco responded. “That’s an impressive goal.”
“Well,” Barnhill quipped back, “that’s what I’m going to do.”
After her first game pitching for Pope, a game in which she struck out 16 batters, Turco understood why she had such lofty goals.
“The thing I really realized was like ‘Holy cow, man. We’re going to have to find someone who can actually catch her,’” Turco said. “That’s impressive because we had some really good catchers and they were struggling to deal with the movement of her pitches.”
The catchers eventually learned to handle Barnhill’s pitches. Pope began its ascension in the Georgia high school softball ranks. The school reached the state championship in each of Barnhill’s three years. She led Pope to its first state title in her senior year, capping the run throwing her 22nd no-hitter in three years and second overall in the state playoffs.
Barnhill graduated as the school’s career leader in every pitching category and was named both the 2015 USA Today Softball Player of the Year and the Georgia Gatorade Player of the Year.
But for every accolade, every award and every record she received, Barnhill pointed to each flaw in her game that she needed to improve.
“She’s never satisfied,” Turco said. “She just wants to keep working hard. She has not accomplished her goals yet.”
Her headstrong mentality has never wavered.
She’s fierce in the circle and her competitive nature sets in almost immediately when the game begins.
But off the field, that all seems to fade away.
“One of the sweetest people ever,” Turco said. “She’s a great kid. Super-high character. Super hard working, very dedicated and very driven, but sweet at the same time.”
‘Four long, grueling years’
Barnhill didn’t have a set school in mind when she decided she wanted to play collegiate softball. In her mind, she would go wherever she could get a scholarship.
“That didn’t end up being a problem,” Barnhill said.
She ultimately narrowed her choices to Florida and Stanford, schools that offer a balance of athletics and academics.
With Stanford in the mix, Walton knew the Gators were going to have to wait.
Stanford holds a strict policy when it comes to athletic scholarships. It doesn’t formally extend an offer until the summer after the student-athlete’s junior year, giving them essentially less than 12 months to make a decision.
If Walton is competing against Stanford, he said the student-athlete better be worth it.
“Kelly was obviously one of those athletes we were willing to take the chance on,” Walton said.
Barnhill talked with Walton and pitching coach Jenn Rocha at least once every two weeks. She felt comfortable talking with them about her performance in her last game, her big test coming up or her family life.
That long wait paid off for Walton. Barnhill committed to Florida on Oct. 24, 2014, just seven months before her high-school graduation.
“Four long, grueling years,” Walton said before a laugh and a sigh of relief.
In hindsight, Walton is grateful for the long recruiting battle.
There was the relationship he built with her over those four years that extended to his time as an assistant with the USA junior national team and now as her coach with the Gators. He has seen her flourish in the classroom as a double major in economics and public relations.
And then there’s her performance on the field since she came to Florida.
Barnhill had a down year in her eyes as a freshman: A 15-1 record, a 1.37 ERA, 6 shutouts and 164 strikeouts in 107 1/3 innings. She was a top-3 finalist for NFCA Freshman of the Year, losing to teammate Amanda Lorenz.
“She always says she can do better,” Turco said.
So Barnhill took it to the next level this year. Heading into the NCAA Tournament, Barnhill has a 22-1 record and leads the country with a 0.33 ERA, well below Florida’s single season record of 0.61 set by Stacey Nelson in 2009. She is averaging 13.28 strikeouts per 7 innings, a mark that would rank 11th all-time in NCAA history if the season ended today and would better her school record that she set as a freshman. She gave up just 1 earned run in 77 innings against SEC opponents.
“I feel like I’ve kind of gotten my bearings,” Barnhill said. “The first year was kind of like ‘OK. What am I doing out here? Got it. This is what SEC play feels like. This is what the SEC Tournament feels like. This is what postseason feels like.’ And now, it’s like I’ve done this before. We’re here. Let’s get work done.”
‘A lot to prove’
Every time Barnhill trots to the circle at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium, she sees the billboard.
Hanging in right-center field, the sign screams “National Champions” in all capital white letters on a blue background. Players celebrate on the left half while a massive alligator lurks on the right.
And directly below the text reads two numbers: 2014 and 2015.
It can be intimidating, Barnhill said. Opponents walk in and immediately know a challenge is in front of them.
It also drives Barnhill, who wasn’t part of the team when it won either of its national titles.
“This team hasn’t done anything yet,” Barnhill said. “We have a lot to prove.”
Friday is the first step at proving just what she — and the Gators (50-6) — can do when Florida begins the NCAA Tournament by hosting Florida A&M, Oklahoma State and Florida International in the Gainesville regional.
Florida is the No. 1 seed for the fifth time in program history and the third straight year overall. UF is looking to make it to the Women’s College World Series for the fourth time in five years.
“I know Florida has its own legacy and they’re already great, but the thing for us is she was able to transform our program,” Turco said. “She took us to the next level and now we’re able to continue playing at that level. I’m hoping she can do the same for Florida and continue their dynasty.”
Barnhill and Florida came up short in continuing the dynasty during her freshman year, with Georgia eliminating the Gators in the super regionals on a two-out, walk-off home run.
“That about broke my heart,” Barnhill said. “This year, we all have that extra little bit of drive to get there.”
By the time the year is over, Barnhill hopes to see “2017” etched onto that national championship banner. “2018” and “2019” would be nice, too. So would the three rings that would accompany them.
And then, come 2020, she’s aiming for the gold medal in the Olympics.
“It’s so great to see softball on the world stage,” Barnhill said. “To be able to play for your country is such a tremendous honor and for little girls to be like ‘I want to be like her. I want to play at that level,’ I can’t think of any better experience.”