As a talented catcher, she captured four club championships as a teenager with the Gordon’s Panthers and then three more playing at UCLA. Kelly then moved to the coaching side where she won three titles as a Bruin assistant and, in 2010, a National Championship at the helm of the UCLA program (the 12th in school history).
Last year, the Bruins went 40-20 and bowed out in the Louisville Regional Championship game, but a No. 1 recruiting class and top talent returning has UCLA poised to contend for many more World Series appearances.
We caught up with the coach recently to touch on a variety of topics including her career and the differences of being a player and coach.
StudentSportsSoftball.com: You’re going into your eighth year at the helm of the most heralded program in college softball history… does it seem like it been that long?
Kelly Inouye-Perez: Yes, it certainly does go by fast. I was literally just talking at the NFCA convention about it being my 26th year as a Bruin and saying how it goes by very quickly. It doesn’t even feel like I got done playing that long ago. The good news is it keeps you young as you get to start over with a new group of players and it’s not just winning softball but changing lives.
SSS.com: What does it mean to you to have come from a program in UCLA with such a rich softball tradition?
KI-P: We’re all still family and our alumni—our former players—come in and the relationship between past and current players continues to grow. My softball family gets together and we tell all these stories of our playing days. I saw Natasha Watley the other night and Stacy Nuveman, then I had the younger group with Andrea Harrison and GiOnna DiSalvatore. I like to implement these alumni with my team and there’s great stories, life lessons and highs and lows the past players can tell. It’s more than softball, it’s all the great memories.
SSS.com: What do you remember from your last game as a player wearing the UCLA uniform?
KI-P: I finished as a player in 1993 and in the College World Series we lost in the Championship game to Arizona 1-0. I had had nothing but winning, but I remember that game went by so quick. After the loss, I looked up in the stands and then Lisa Fernandez and I cried, we both lost it, because it was the last opportunity on this stage as a player. However, just when I thought it was over I got invited to be on the staff and I stayed and never left UCLA.
SSS.com: You’re three years away removed from the Bruins’ most recent National Championship (2010). What are the first thoughts that come to your mind when you think about that team and that title year?
KI-P: I just think it was a case of not one solo individual, but us being a Team MVP. We were all about that 2010. If you look at our wall in our stadium we have a lot of banners of big name players, but for that 2010 team the whole team is out there. It was such a collective team effort of playing together. It’s not to say we didn’t have great individual players. Megan Langenfeld played the best softball of her life, she played the best at the most critical time and she’ll forever have that.
SSS.com: As a player you won three National Championships too, compare what it’s like personally to win as a player and then as a coach.
KI-P: It’s not even comparable, being a player there’s nothing that’s more thrilling than to feel that exhilaration of winning and know you’ve gone through those critical moments. I can tell you specifics about being on the field, it’s so strong and clear. As a coach you’re thrilled to see the team play their best ball when it matters. That 2010 season we were not perfect, we had our highs and lows, but were able to be at the best when it mattered. As a player you get the physical feeling that you’re tired but you’ve done it. As a coach you’re proud that a team is able to pull together and the accomplishments are something bigger than just wins and losses. That’s why it’s so rewarding and surreal to see your players get that outcome which only one team gets on the last day of the season.
SSS.com: You were an All-American catcher and in softball and baseball you see a lot of catchers who become coaches or managers… how does playing there help you lead a team?
KI-P: That’s the position where you have such critical leadership capabilities. As a catcher, it’s not about me, it’s about the pitcher. Being a catcher is a grinding position and you don’t get a lot of accolades. You have to have that “It’s not about me” mentality.
SSS.com: What would you say was a key moment in your career in taking you from being good to great?
KI-P: I had been part of National Championship teams my freshman and sophomore years in 1989 and ’90 and was hitting in the three or four spot and catching Lisa Fernandez and then in 1991 I had three surgeries on my surgery and had to take a medical redshirt. I missed a year and had to pull out, but the train kept rolling and I had to find a role when I was on the bench. That was my defining moment, because it greatly helped me be able to identify with the challenges my players face. I have to help them find a role and a way to impact them when they’re having struggles or challenges. You either quit or find a way to get through it and move on and it’s so critical in my role to help them get through those times when it’s life changing.
SSS.com: What do you find is the most challenging aspect of being a coach?
KI-P: Meshing different cultures together is a big part of it, but it’s also pulling together all these personalities. You have 17-year-old freshmen and 23-year-seniors. That to me is our biggest challenge. On the field I love calling games, setting it up, reading hitters and setting up a defense, but I’m talking about getting high quality athletes to work together as a unit which can make the off the field stuff more difficult than on it.
SSS.com: You were a very successful club player too, winning four ASA titles, what sticks out to you from your club and high school days?
KI-P: I was very fortunate being able to play on some good teams. Lisa and I were playing together at the 10U level and were able to play at different levels and win championships. I came from a solid program, the Gordon’s Panthers coached by Larry Mays, who was very knowledgeable and passionate, and as a result the only manager inducted into the ASA Hall of Fame. He coached the most Olympians who played for him and there were a lot of us from that summer ball program who went on to college, the Olympics and the pros. We would all say the same thing: we benefitted enormously from being in a family-like program, getting great knowledge of the game and learning how to win.
SSS.com: Early recruiting is an ongoing hot button and at the NFCA Convention the top of shutting down recruiting in the fall was discussed… what are your thoughts on it?
KI-P: I’m not a strong voice because I’m here (in Southern California) and the majority of top tournaments are held here in our backyard so it doesn’t impact us as much as programs that have to travel nationwide. A lot have a different focus, having a lot of travel, but I do believe it’s going faster than anyone would hope. The two biggest decisions a person will make are whom you will marry and where you go to school. I think it’s unfortunate that players are deciding very early. Some know early where they want to go and that’s fine, but some feel pressured to commit early just to make sure they get a scholarship. As for shutting down the fall recruiting, there are concerns that players are getting over used as they practice during the week and they’re playing too much now with it being all year round. Also, there’s the position that a lot of events are during the week and players are missing school. I agree with all of them, but I’m not leading the charge because I’m fortunate to go down the street and see top showcases. Still, it’s difficult to give a clear, solid answer as to what is best for the kids and that’s the key—it has to make sense for everyone.
SSS.com: We see you everyone at events watching players and recruiting, including Saturdays and Sundays. How do you balance the long hours away being a coach and recruiter with being a wife and mother of two?
KI-P: That’s the tricky question, everyone has to find a way to manage it. For me it’s simple: this is a family commitment. My husband and I go back to when we were teenagers—he helped me choose UCLA and he travelled with the Gordon’s Panthers. For me I have family support from my husband, my parents and in-laws who will watch the kids and travel with me. From Sue (Enquist, her UCLA coach), we were taught it’, family first, then school and then softball. The girls, the Bruin players, are part of my family too. It’s very difficult and highly demanding to take care of the players—my second family—and make sure they focus on school and then softball. My immediate family is invested in every part of my life and I’m fortunate in having that.