By Bill Sorrell
Special to The Independent
Kelsey Gross learned from her father Randy Gross that despite hard times and times of failure, hard work would get her to the top of her game.
She is there now.
Following her just-completed senior year at Collierville High School, Gross was named the Best of the Preps Softball Player of the Year for Shelby-Metro by The Commercial Appeal
She had been a top five finalist since a sophomore.
“It’s a humbling experience. There are so many athletes who work hard every day and to be one of those was amazing,” said Gross, who is a freshman at Austin Peay.
She was named Most Valuable Player for Collierville’s team and won the offense award.
A pitcher and first baseman, Gross had a .590 batting average and ERA of 0.80 with 264 strikeouts and a 26-6 record.
Collierville, which finished 27-8, was one win away from returning to the state tournament. The Dragons won the district and region championships before losing in sub-state. In the 2015 state tournament, Gross pitched in a 2-1 victory over Hardin Valley. They also went to state her freshman and sophomore years.
“Not only as an incredible pitcher, she also is a tremendous first baseman. Along with those two strengths, she is also a big-league hitter,” said Collierville head coach Mike Bradley, who just completed his 23rd season.
“I can’t even begin to count the number of games she won with her bat.”
Collierville shortstop Sydney Eubank, who is now a senior and was also named to the Best of the Preps Shelby-Metro team, said, “Kelsey had the team on her shoulders and was humble about her talent. She was a leader and led by example for the younger girls. Her pitching and hitting no doubt kept the team in good winning position during games.”
She will pitch and play first base at Austin Peay. Gross fell “in love with” the campus, its “perfect size,” the team and the coaching of Shane Showalter. “It felt like family,” she said.
Said Bradley, “I see her having an instant impact.”
Gross will use her favorite pitch, curveball, to impact Austin Peay non-conference opponents and those in the Ohio Valley Conference.
“It breaks outside so it gets batters,” said said. “I like pitching. It provides a lot of pressure and I love being in the middle of the game.”
Bradley said, “The bigger the game, the more she bears down.”
Said Gross, “I try to rely on my teammates, knowing that I have defense behind my back and every pitch counts. Softball is so competitive. It’s a team sport and not a one-person sport. You can work together and you will always have people that will have your back.”
Gross has let her team know that she has their backs.
“My relationship with teammates, trying to keep them up in the dugout and letting them I will always be there for them,” is part of her game.
Teammates applauded her extra lessons after practice, her dedication and hard work in practice.
“You have to put the effort outside of practice as well as inside,” she said. “You are not going to be with your team all the time. It takes a lot of one-on-one with with your Dad pitching and hitting or anybody who is there to help you.”
She worked hard behind the scenes in the weight room and conditioning. “My hard work off the field is one of my greatest aspects and the key to my success,” said Gross, who lost 40 pounds her senior year.
She was not afraid to give help or ask for it.
“In life, you can apply that because you can always ask others to help when you need it. I am not afraid to ask people if they need help,” she said.
Bradley said, “Her strong character and work ethic was a blueprint for her teammates to follow. She worked even harder to carry our team, despite being young, to both the district and regional championships. She is a tremendous person as well as athlete. Kelsey was our team leader.”
Eubank said, “As Kelsey’s teammate, I learned that in order to be the best, you had to put your heart into the sport.”
Her attitude is what matters most on the field said Gross. “People look up to me. I feel like my personality makes me unique. I am not afraid to go out of my way and talk to somebody.”
Gross, 18, began playing softball when she was 8. Her father played baseball and her mother, Lisa Gross, played softball. Her most memorable moment came when she was 14 and pitched in the national championship game for her Paragould, Arkansas, 16U travel team. She was playing in the ASA Southern Nationals.
Gross called the the thrill of hard work paying off was just as “amazing” as winning.
Her awards have multiplied. She was Best of the Preps all-Shelby-metro in softball as a freshman and won Collierville’s “Team Me” award. She was all-metro, all-state and won the Golden Glove award as a sophomore. She won the Rock award as a junior and was all-metro along with being a top-five finalist for softball player of the year.
She played middle school basketball and continued to play church league basketball at First Baptist Church of Collierville while in high school.
She gave pitching lessons to young girls.
“I feel like God’s plan is to help others and give back whenever I can,” said Gross, who plans to major in special education. “I grew up loving kids, wanting to help others, loving to be active. My cousin (Miranda Finely of Munford) has Down’s Syndrome. That played a role in my life, knowing that is what I want to do helping whether it is in elementary school or high school.
“I think God’s purpose (for me) is to help others. I love giving back to the community. I love giving back to softball.”
One of Gross’ high school activities was being a member of Dragon Buddies which is a special education club.
A member of First Baptist Church and baptized in the fourth grade, Gross has relied on her faith. “I have to trust His plan.”
Her favorite Bible verse is Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
She reads a devotion daily. “That is my time with God,” she said.
“I would say going into my senior year, my faith was very challenged. Some of my friends made some choices that my morals don’t. I had to turn to God, knowing that I am going to go down His route. My parents taught me growing up is to stay true to your morals and never fall into something that is not how you are raised.
I really believe in that.
“Everybody has to make their own choices. I know what was best for me to stay on track. Jesus means so much to me, knowing that He has already planned my life out. It is my job to keep my responsibility with Him and to stay on that track that He has for me.”
Before games, the team would form a circle and pray which Gross would lead.
“She prayed for His glory and whenever she was down, she would turn to Him for strength,” said Eubank.
She saw the strength of her family when grandparents died.
“My heart really went out to my dad,” she said. His father Hubert Gross had a stroke and died in 2009. Two years later, Ricky Gross, Randy’s brother, died and six weeks after Ricky’s death, Randy’s mother Geraldine Gross died in 2011. Her maternal grandfather Floyd Barrentine died in 2013.
Kelsey’s inspiration comes from her parents.
“They work hard every day. They do what is best for the family. Making them happy and seeing my hard work makes them happy,” she said. Her brother Cody
Gross, who graduated from the University of Tennessee, and his wife Ashley live in Memphis.
Kelsey has also been inspired by Jennie Finch, who the USA national team in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics.
She has also been inspired by pitching coach Rose Kalisk, assistant coach Michelle Martin. “My role model would be Michelle because of her work ethic and positive attitude. I really look up to her. She was always there for me.”
Collierville coach Barry Sarrio, who has retired, would have “bucket talks” with Gross. “He taught me many life lessons,” she said. With a custom of giving necklaces to seniors with their numbers on it, he gave one to Gross (with the number 17) before he retired.
“That means so much to me. He gave it to me a year early.”
Bradley was her head coach four years. “He truly means the world to me. He has never left my side. He always pushed me to be the best that I can be on and off the field. He will be the first one to hug your neck and he will be the first one to yell at you on the field. He never holds a grudge. My three high school coaches (Sarrio, Martin, Bradley) truly made me the person that I am and the player that I am today.”
Gross, who likes bulldogs although she does not own one and going to the beach in Florida, has already set collegiate goals.
“My goal in life is to keep my relationship with God strong, to finish my college with a 3.5 GPA, get a special education job, keep my softball up, have a great four years and hopefully coach a high school team after college.”
At Austin Peay she will continue to perfect skills.
“There is always room to improve in pitching and hitting. I can definitely improve keeping my head down every swing and working on the tee at home, getting my swing great every time. I have learned that I am very hard on myself. I criticize myself very easily. I have learned that I have to get past that,” she said.
She got past a broken thumb as a freshman. Her father hit a grounder and while fielding it, she broke three parts of her thumb that required surgery. She also recovered from a torn left medial collateral ligament.
A turning point came after thumb surgery.
“I know not to take a game for granted. Having to sit out and watch your teammates play, knowing you can’t be out there, definitely made me realize that every game is a blessing and an opportunity.”