Susalla's pitch for switch to outfield is correct call

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

It's hard to tell which is more revelatory — that Kelsey Susalla has successfully made the transition from infielder to starting right-fielder or the fact she actually initiated the move.

On a Michigan softball team full of big personalities, Susalla is one of the more quiet players, although she insists that once you get to know her, she's not as shy as she seems. But she initiated some noise in the offseason, sitting down with coach Carol Hutchins to tell her that after two seasons of making sometime appearances as a pinch hitter, she wanted playing time.

Susalla, a Garden City native, took the lead knowing the Wolverines were losing veteran outfielders. Although she had played pretty much every spot in the infield during her career, she had never played outfield.

"I just wanted to do what I could to help the team," Susalla said this week. "Since we were losing a couple outfielders and I had a pretty good bat, I knew I could help out. Hutch said to give it a try in the summer, see how it goes. She liked the outcome."

Susalla is batting .369 fourth in the lineup. She has 13 home runs this season, including a hard-hit line shot to right field in the NCAA Regional final last Sunday against Pitt. She is a big reason why the third-ranked Wolverines (54-6) have advanced to the NCAA softball Super Regional that begins tonight against Georgia in Ann Arbor. The winner of the best-of-three series moves on to the World Series.

"I have been Kelsey's biggest fan all year," Hutchins said. "I've watched her just work hard every day. We gave her what I think is the most prestigious award we give out at the end of the season, our Maize and Blue award, which is basically the coach's award. A kid who comes in every day and makes the coach happy with her work ethic, with her desire to just help Michigan be great. I can't say enough about her."

The award is given to the player who exhibits character, commitment and leadership, something the junior, who grew up dreaming about playing for the Wolverines, exhibited while converting to an outfielder.

"I wasn't really expecting it," Susalla said. "It's cool to see my hard work pay off."

The hard work started in the offseason as she made the move with the help of some of the graduating players like Katie Luetkens. She learned how to adjust to balls in the outfield and how to stay behind them and picked up general knowledge of the position while taking fly after fly.

She also has considerably relied on Michigan associate head coach Bonnie Tholl, who works with the outfielders. Tholl, a former Michigan player, was active in Susalla's recruitment and is marveling at her advancement this season.

"I was an infielder, and I never transitioned to another position," Tholl said. "Kelsey, as a high school kid, would come to (Michigan's) camp as a second baseman and a pitcher. We knew she was a hitter. I would go to these (high school) practices and watch her team play. I was going to watch other kids, her teammates a year younger than her, but my eye kept going to her. This kid has a fluid swing. If you would have asked me where is she going to play, I would not have chosen the outfield. This kid was a corner, a first baseman and a hitter."

But having the skill set of an infielder is an enormous plus in terms of versatility.

"She has an infielder's glove, and if you have an infielder's glove you can make the transition to outfield easier," Tholl said. "Reading the ball off her bat, gauging the distance, that was going to be the biggest question. Props go out to our strength and conditioning staff, because I've watched her since September pick up speed and increase her first-step quickness. She has just been steady. It has been more than I could have asked for."

While growing up in Garden City, Susalla watched a lot of Michigan softball on television and often attended games. She was a two-time All-State selection and knew Tholl and the coaches were scouting her in high school, but a scholarship offer still seemed remote.

"I never knew it could happen," she said. "When I was given the opportunity I had to take it. Sometimes it goes over my head how lucky I am. But I step back and see how lucky I truly am and anyone who is playing here, how truly lucky we all are."

Tholl said Susalla is model of how persistence and attention to details pay off.

"She said she wanted to give the outfield a try, and she now is in our No. 4 spot, and this is someone who wasn't an everyday player her first two years," Tholl said. "Her teammates see how hard she works. She is the example of how to commit to the program and commit to the process and work at it every single day.

"I give props to Kelsey for committing to the process and the practice plan I bring to the outfield every day. She's diligent paying attention to details. You can watch her confidence grow. It's palpable. Her success has become the team's success."

And it seems after all those years as an infielder, she's found a home.

"I want what's best for the team," Susalla said. "I think I've found my niche in the outfield."

She laughed a little even as she said that. After all, who could have known?

NCAA softballSuper Regionals

Where: Alumni Field, Ann Arbor.

Teams: No. 3-seeded Michigan (54-6) vs. No. 14-seeded Georgia (44-15). Format is best of three.

When: 9 p.m. today (ESPN2), 6 p.m. Friday (ESPNU) and, if necessary, 9 p.m. Friday (ESPN).

Tickets: Limited number for Thursday; Friday games are sold out.