For many college athletes, it is a high honor to return to coach at their alma mater. Many say that coaching at the school they played for is actually harder than coaching at a different school due to higher expectations. For Bradley softball, two-thirds of their coaching staff hail from the Hilltop as alumni who played for the Braves as well.
Assistant softball coaches Rachel Huggins and Kealia Wysocki graduated from Bradley in 2016 and 2020, respectively. Both have had impactful roles on the team; first on the diamond and now in the dugout.
“I didn’t know that I wanted to coach when I was going through school, I kind of had a different plan set, but I think that after I graduated, I started missing the game, and Coach Hayes luckily brought me back on staff,” Huggins said.
“I always knew I wanted to be a college coach after this,” Wysocki said. “I was coaching every summer after our season, but honestly, with COVID, it gave me an opportunity to volunteer here. Coach Hayes really worked hard to get me on staff for this spring.”
Huggins and Wysocki, alongside head coach Amy Hayes, have helped the Braves feel good about where they are at after a series sweep of Missouri State last weekend.
However, one thing that previously caused Hayes to worry was not being able to spend time with her three freshmen catchers. Wysocki, one of the most decorated backstops in program history, solved that problem quickly.
“With Kealia, I always knew she wanted to coach,” Hayes said. “We were talking about it when she was a player and trying to find opportunities, but she ended up staying in the area and was able to do her grad school online. With COVID and budget cuts, when I found out she was going to be in the area, I really felt that it was a necessity that we needed to get her.”
Wysocki has 29 home runs to her name along with 99 RBI, second and eighth in BU history, respectively. Bradley’s now assistant coach also holds the single season record for slugging percentage with a mark of .775 during her junior season.
Despite the laundry list of impressive numbers from the playing field, one of Wysocki’s best assets to the team comes outside the lines: her familiarity with the Braves currently on the roster whom she has played with.
“I was happy [when finding out Wysocki was coming back] because we were super close,” junior pitcher and utility player Taise Thompson said. “She’s helping the catchers a lot because they’re really young and haven’t had a lot of experience.”.
The two were battery-mates over the 2018 through 2020 seasons and had known each other since they were sophomores in high school playing in the same summer program in California.
Close geographical proximity played a role in helping Hayes build a stronger bond with Huggins as well. Huggins’ aunt was Hayes’ high school softball coach and the latter’s best friend was Huggins’ pitching coach while she was in high school. While Hayes said “we never knew each other that well,” the reason why the two Bradley coaches possessed multiple mutual connections was due to Huggins growing up in Mt. Zion, Illinois and Hayes being raised in nearby Decatur.
The trio of coaches has often been close, whether personally or geographically, but they do differ in a sense. While Wysocki is more of the “brains” behind the scenes, Huggins keeps the team emotionally stable.
“She was a pinch hitter and designated player for her career and I think that goes to the testament of her personality and her stability,” Hayes said. “It’s not easy to be a pinch hitter or a designated player and she really had the head for it … For me [Huggins] is just our rock.”
The moment Hayes realized Huggins could become a coach was during a series against heated rival Illinois State during her 2016 senior season. Needing a crucial hit to keep the Braves alive down two runs, Huggins executed the most clutch outcome possible, hitting a three-run walk-off home run which gave the Braves their first regular season series victory against ISU since 1987.
“I sent her to the plate thinking ‘She’s gonna win us this game’ and she jacked it. I’m pretty sure I was crying at 3rd base when she came around,” Hayes said.
Both Huggins and Hayes knew that Wysocki had the drive and potential to become a coach as her career blossomed. Her passion for the game and willingness to learn is what propelled her to a successful playing career as a force in the middle of Bradley’s lineup for years. Hayes credits such qualities as helping her stay determined as a coach.
“It’s hard to coach,” Hayes said. “A lot of kids want to coach and they get into it and think ‘This is not what I thought it would be about,’ and I think she’s seen some of that, but it hasn’t deterred her.”
According to Wysocki, it’s been just the opposite of discouragement.
“I think I’ve done a lot more than I expected I’d do, but it’s honestly something I can handle and something I can look forward to,” Wysocki said. “This is a lot of fun for me; I don’t really see it as a job.”
She is not alone in seeing coaching as a desirable career; after all, her counterpart Huggins coached at Bradley as a volunteer when she began in August 2016. Huggins taught lessons and camps at night for sources of income after working as an unpaid volunteer at Bradley during the day.
Thankfully, Huggins sees her players now also making sacrifices for the betterment of the Braves team.
“They really just buy into what we ask of them and do it to the best of their ability. It’s really all the effort and hard work they put in and being willing to try new things and do whatever is asked of them,” Huggins said, who has helped the Braves attain multiple batting records since taking over as the primary hitting coach.
When Bradley’s softball squad isn’t busy checking the scouting report or doing drills, the Braves enjoy the familiar presence of their coaches.
“[The best part] is our funny moments where it’s us just laughing and I’ll say something and [Coach Wysocki] is the only one that knows what I’m talking about,” Thompson said.
Above all, Hayes is thankful that the two former players wanted to stay with the program.
“I would always go [to alumni] before I would go out of our program,” Hayes said. “I remember when Coach Huggins called me about wanting to be on staff and I was kind of floored because she had other options. I think I said ‘Are you sure?’”
It doesn’t seem like anybody in the Bradley softball program would want to have it any other way.