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Kelley living LLWS dream for the third time

By CHRIS MASSE

For The Express

Rick Kelley began his Little League coaching career 40 years ago. He spent the first 35 years dreaming about someday coaching in the Little League World Series.

He now is living that dream for a third time.

Kelley helped Bowling Green East Little League reach the Series for the first time in 2015. It made for a good story and Kelley enjoyed the experience immensely since his youngest son Carson played on that team. While Carson’s Little League days were over, Kelley’s were not. And history keeps repeating itself.

If this is another version of “Groundhog Day,” do not wake up Kelley.

“It never gets old,” Kelley said. “It was memorable in 2015 because my son was on the team and I had coached for so many years. It was an emotional experience to get there. It’s so hard to get there. You have to have a lot of stars line up to get here and we’re fortunate to come back. I’m just grateful that these kids get to experience this great opportunity.”

As much fun as Kelley is having, it always has been about the kids. Yes, he always hoped to coach at the Series, but the main objective has been positively influencing players on and off the field while providing life lessons through baseball.

That is why he continued coaching even after all three of his sons had graduated from Little League. This is like a gigantic cherry on top, but it still is only is a big bonus.

“For someone coaching as long as I have it’s always a thrill to get to the Little League World Series, but I’m more happy about the idea that so many people new get to experience it and have this lifelong memory,” Kelley said. “This age group is receptive to learning the fundamentals and the satisfaction of seeing the improvement of kids from 10 to 12 years old is always great to see. It’s rewarding from a coaching standpoint.”

It is a reciprocal relationship because Kelley keeps rewarding Bowling Green East as well. It takes a team effort, but Kelley is a big part of the engine powering these Series qualifiers. Bowling Green finished fourth in the U.S. in 2015 before taking third a year later. This season, Bowling Green entered the Series undefeated and overpowered its Great Lakes Regional opponents, outscoring them, 35-13.

Kelley has an encyclopedic-like knowledge of the game and understands how to get the most from his players. It also helps that he has become a Series veteran. The experience Kelley gained in 2015 sure helped in 2016 and again has played a role this season. Everything that goes into making this run on and off the field, Kelley has lived. He provides Bowling Green quite an advantage each year.

“That’s what is so unique about it. Going back the second time was much different. We talked about going back a third time and he talks about how much that helps knowing how to prepare the families and the players for what to expect. Not too many Little League managers in the country have that because it’s so rare,” Bowling Green East Little League vice president Brandon Phillips said. “The first time Rick was with his son was on that team so he went through that experience and he’s just a coach now. For him to stay on after Carson moved on and continue to help these teams has been immeasurable for what it means to the league.”

Each season presents a new set of challenges because those teams often feature many new, if not, all new players. Kelley is quick to say how good Bowling Green’s feeder leagues are. He is just as quick to credit his players. What he will not do, is give himself the credit.

Ask Kelley about his role in helping Bowling Green become a perennial U.S. power and watch him deflect it toward anyone else. This is his coaching journey, but it is their success.

“They deserve the credit for what they’ve done. What the Little League experience teaches them is about competing in pressure situations and that helps them later in their baseball careers, too,” Kelley said. “They have worked hard at it and been attentive and listened to the fundamentals that we stress. They have really bought into it and done a great job displaying the fundamentals of baseball. They have made it happen.”

The best way to measure Kelley’s impact may not be through his fabulous resume. He has achieved the rarest of Series milestones, but that only tells part of story. It is more about all the players that have achieved success in whatever avenue they have pursued. Devin Obee is one of those players and competed on both the 2015 and 2016 Series teams, emerging as one of the tournament’s top players each time.

Obee is now one of Kentucky’s top high school baseball players and will play baseball at Duke following graduation. Kelley played a large role in helping Obee and so many others like him enjoy tremendous success following Little League. That is Kelley’s true legacy.

“Rick Kelley helped me a lot to grow into the player I am today,” Obee said. “Through all the tough practices and constructive criticism he helped me to learn from my mistakes to do better in the future.”

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