It had to be a little bit odd for Jeff Kelley this past summer.
On one hand, Kelley was proud as his Iowa City West softball squad became one of the first teams to win a Class 5A State Softball Tournament game when the Women of Troy beat the Ottumwa Bulldogs 5-0 this past August in Fort Dodge.
On the other hand, it’s one of the first times Kelley has been happy to see a softball squad from Ottumwa lose. After all, most of Kelley’s coaching life consisted on turning the junior college squad that calls the City of Bridges home into a consistent winner.
“When I got the draw and saw we’d be coaching against (Ottumwa head softball coach) Frank (Huston), I thought it was funny how things worked out,” Kelley said. “I consider Frank to be a great friend. I guess if you coach long enough, strange things like that can happen.”
For Kelley, losing seemed strange during his 11 years as head coach at Indian Hills Community College. After all, it only happened 106 times in 749 games coached.
And for well over a decade, a spring without a trip to the NJCAA Division I National Softball tournament not just strange for Warriors fans. It was unheard of.
With 10 regional titles and 10 trips in 11 seasons to the national tournament, Kelley guided the Warrior softball program to an amazing level of play. That made Kelley a no-brainer to be the first softball coach inducted into the Indian Hills Athletic Hall of Fame.
Being just the second coach overall to be inducted, however, seemed stunning to Kelley.
“I was pretty surprised, pleasantly of course,” Kelley said. “In the entire history of Indian Hills, seeing someone like (former IHCC baseball coach) Pat (Daugherty) be the first coach inducted was a rightful honor. I’m surprised I’m the second coach.
“Seeing some of the things that Terry Carroll did with basketball and Brad Stracke with golf where both of those men had championship teams — I was definitely happy, but kind of surprised.”
The Warriors placed in the top seven of the national tournament four times over Kelley’s 11 seasons, with the best run coming in 2004 when the Warriors made it all the way to the final day of the tourney before finishing fourth.
Over the years, Kelley’s Warrior softball squads had plenty of success leading up to postseason play. IHCC averaged 58 wins a season under Kelley, giving the Centerville native an .859 winning percentage, and won a school record 66 games in 2001.
“A lot of the credit goes to the coaches I worked with and, especially, to those kids,” Kelley said. “I challenged all my players to become better athletes and be great teammates. It was all about building up those opportunities to experience something like the national tournament together.”
For Kelley, the pressure to consistently meet that high level of success year after year was something he walked into when he was named head coach prior to the 1996 season. The Warriors had already started an impressive string of 15 consecutive national tournament appearances by making it to their first five.
“The most pressure I ever had during my time as head coach was that first year, just because I was trying to keep the tradition going,” Kelley said. “That success is what allowed us to keep recruiting that kind of talent. When you’ve had the taste of making it to the national tournament, you want every girl you bring in to experience that success.”
Perhaps the best tribute to Kelley’s success is how it has brought the level of play among the rival teams that were in the path of the Warriors decade-and-a-half of dominance. The string of successive national tournament appearances ended along with the run of regional titles in 2006, when Iowa Western and Southeastern eliminated IHCC from the regional tournament in Council Bluffs.
The end of the streak also ended Kelley’s run at Indian Hills head softball coach. Kelley soon stepped down as head coach to focus on things away from the diamond.
“I got out of it to be around my family more,” Kelley said. “I was just getting my family started when I decided to step down.”
After two years away from coaching, Kelley was offered a opportunity that he “couldn’t hardly turn down” when he was offered the chance to coach at Iowa City West. In five seasons with the Women of Troy, Kelley has kept on winning with a 154-54 record that included last year’s run to the program’s first-ever state softball tournament.
“I always thought that there might be a chance to get back into coaching,” Kelley said. “You don’t have to recruit. You don’t have as much travel. It was one of those things that really made a lot of sense for me. I can coach and still have plenty of time to be at home.”
This weekend will be very special to Kelley as he returns to see many familiar faces from his time at Indian Hills. What will make the weekend even more special is that Kelley will be inducted in the same IHCC Hall-of-Fame class as one of his former players in Karen Smith-Malloy.
“Karen was a wonderful person,” Kelley said. “All of the things she accomplished as a player and as an athlete were well-earned. That’s one of the things I’m really going to enjoy. I get to spend time with someone who’s as great a person as she was a player. Both Karen and Cindy are two of the most special people I’ve coached. I’ll take a lot of pride knowing that I can stand next to one of the people I’ve had the chance to know.”
One of those accomplishments earned by both Karen and Cindy Smith is an honor that a true testament to kind of young women Kelley brought to IHCC as a coach. Over his 11 years, the last seven were named Academic All-American teams with 54 players selected to either academic or athletic All-American teams during his tenure.
“You look at all of the people that have been so successful at this school and know I’m going to be in there as one of the select few to be a hall-of-fame inductee. It’s really kind of humbling.
“I just sent an email off to Doc (Lyle) Hellyer to thank him for the opportunity he gave me. Not a day goes by I don’t look back fondly on the time I had to be a part of that school.”