Franklin Deloach, the softball coach at East Coweta High, in Sharpsburg, Ga., can still recall the image as if it were yesterday, his earliest memory of Kelley Lynch and her father, Steve. This was eight eventful years ago, before Kelley dominated opposing hitters for the Lady Indians, before her softball idol surprised her with the 2019 Gatorade National Softball Player of the Year award.
As DeLoach recalls, Kelley’s sister, Katey, was behind the plate for East Coweta. But her father and younger sister weren’t in the stands. Instead Steve sat on a bucket, away from the crowd, while Kelley stood 30 feet away, glove on her left hand. They would watch a pitch, then Kelley, a fifth-grader, would throw one herself to Steve, blonde ponytail whipping through thick air. “It was like clockwork,” says DeLoach, whose gaze kept drifting from the game. Beautiful clockwork.
Then, after the Indians’ season, Steve told everyone he was sick—esophageal cancer. Four months later he was in hospice. After he died on March 7, at 46, the visitation line wrapped around the church.
Softball wasn’t the same after that in suburban Coweta County, where Steve had coached so many, and especially not for the Lynches. In the circle, Kelley would look over for him and see someone else sitting on a bucket. For a year Jan Lynch could tell her younger child wasn’t enjoying the game the way she used to. But Kelley never talked about giving up the sport.
Over time, Jan learned to catch Kelley in the front yard of the house in Newnan, and when she wasn’t available Kelley would pitch into a concrete wall in the basement. Other times, Katey took her father’s spot. After one season Kelley joined a new travel team, no longer playing for the group her dad once coached. “I think her switching gave her a kind of acceptance that, ‘O.K., Dad is gone, I have to learn to do this for myself,’ ” says Katey, who is about to graduate from Kennesaw State, where she played softball. “It made us work harder. It made Kelley really want to play softball not just for herself but for him and his legacy.”
Kelley joined the Indians as an eighth-grader playing jayvee, giving DeLoach an opportunity to fulfill the request Steve made during his last days. Steve was losing his ability to communicate but got his message across to DeLoach when he visited at the hospital. “I want my girls to play softball for you,” Steve said. “I know you’ll take care of them.”
Kelley burst onto the national scene between her eighth- and ninth-grade seasons as thunderously as her rise ball, which she hurls with tremendous backspin. Maybe that was because of her three-inch growth spurt to 5' 9". Or maybe she was finally able to focus fully on the sport she loved again.
DeLoach traditionally has every ninth-grader spend time on jayvee, but after seeing Kelley make one start, he knew that wouldn’t be fair to opponents. SEC coaches started calling. Kelley transferred to a nationally competitive travel team, the Georgia Impact. She excelled at shortstop, too, and basketball. She adjusted her goals from just getting a scholarship to becoming all-state, winning a Class 7A title, becoming the No. 1 recruit in the country—and then knocked them out one by one. At first she was hesitant to develop another pitch, but when a coach said she’d need a changeup to succeed in college, she figured one out. She used the pitch in the seventh inning of the 2018 travel team national championship, inducing a title-clinching groundout.
But more than any of her pitches or her underrated athleticism or her much discussed precision, DeLoach says, what makes her really special—“the GOAT for me”—is her mental makeup. Kelley Ice, they call her, which is high praise 40 miles southeast of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. “Between the ears, she’s un— I can’t even compare her with anybody else,” says the 45-year-old DeLoach. “I’ve never been around a kid, an athlete, in my life as strong as she is.”
When Kelley walked a batter, opposing coaches (and maybe even a few on her own team) wondered if she was just giving herself a challenge. “She plays without a pulse,” Impact coach Patrick Lewis says. Mounting a title defense after an undefeated junior season for East Coweta, Kelley woke up last Oct. 27 knowing she’d need to win a semifinal in the morning and the title game that afternoon—after having already pitched each of the 26 innings of the playoffs. What was on her mind going into those games? “I remember being super sore,” she says. “It was really exciting for us. The year before was the first year our school ever won it, so the thought of going back-to-back was really cool.”
She threw a no-hitter in the semis, striking out 13, then tossed a football with one of the coach’s kids while waiting for the other finalist to emerge. As she stretched and warmed up, it became clear that Mill Creek, which had won two titles in the past decade, would be her opponent. “Looks like Mill Creek is going to get the state runner-up trophy,” she said. The remark wasn’t said with arrogance, DeLoach explains, and it wasn’t a way to psych herself up. She was legitimately happy for Mill Creek. They had worked hard. It wasn’t until she was on the bus afterward, bringing another trophy back to East Coweta, that she realized she’d thrown a perfect game. DeLoach had to tell her.
She finished the season with a 17–0 record and a 0.27 ERA over 105 1⁄3 innings, to go with a .436 batting average. This spring Lewis sent Kelley into her last Impact game to face a single batter, giving her a chance to be recognized coming off the field for the last time. When he walked out to pull her, he broke down and started crying. Lynch just laughed. “Are you really crying?” she cracked, handing the ball over and jogging off.
Only one person has proved capable of knocking Kelley off guard: her idol. Back when Steve was sick, Jan found a Jennie Finch softball camp being held outside Atlanta, and she ferried Kelley and her teammates over. That would be the only time Jan ever saw her daughter completely awestruck. A couple years later, Kelley’s team participated in a Finch-hosted event and they spoke briefly. She did what any rational teenager would do and asked for Finch’s shoes. “They’re a little big for you,” the pitching legend responded. During high school Lynch collected every bit of Finch memorabilia she could, from three life-sized cardboard cutouts to a Finch pillow, embroidered with the phrase dream and believe.
Then last month the two met again—this time on Kelley’s turf. During East Coweta’s kids’ baseball camp Finch surprised the pitcher, walking onto the field with the Gatorade National Softball Player of the Year award. Kelley covered her face to hide a shocked smile. She embraced Finch and beamed. She even recounted the shoe story to Finch.
Weeks later Lynch donned Finch’s number 27, playing for the USA’s U‑19 team. (Her mom cried when the jersey arrived; Kelley didn’t bat an eye.) That meant Kelley’s first trip to Europe and a return to Columbus, Ga., the site of her state finals conquests, for softball’s International Cup.
Lynch had committed to Auburn in ninth grade before reopening her recruitment last summer. Allowed four more official visits, she returned to Auburn, an hour away from home, and checked out Florida and Florida State.
In between she took a trip to the University of Washington. No one expected her to go there. In recent memory no top prospect—much less the No. 1 player—left the Southeast for the West Coast without some prior connection. Washington coach Heather Tarr didn’t think she had a chance.
And yet, Kelley loved the area, the players, the coaches. She was sold. “She’s a pioneer,” Tarr says. “We’re proud of her for having the confidence to choose something she really wants to do while maybe everyone else around her is saying, ‘Why are you doing that?’ ”
Partly, she’s honoring Steve’s legacy. Be a leader, not a follower, he drilled into his children. It’s a phrase that became so connected with Steve that after he passed, East Coweta built a commemorative bench with Remember, Always Lead... Don’t Follow engraved across the back rest.
After the second state title, DeLoach had Kelley sit on that bench for a photo, one trophy on each knee. “That’s kind of my lasting visual of her,” he says. The image makes him think of his visit to Steve’s hospital bed and the promise he made to him while he was there. “I know her dad is very proud of her,” he says.