First impressions may not always mean everything, but the one Natalie Kelly got as soon as she got a full taste of the Auburn University campus and basketball program certainly fit the cliché well.
Kelly announced last week that she has committed to the Tigers’ program, making her the second Albany athlete in three years to make the jump to an SEC program and the first girls’ basketball player since her current coach, Stacy Darouse, played at LSU.
“When I took a visit there, when I walked on campus I fell in love,” said Kelly one of the returning starters from the Lady Hornets’ Class 3A state runnerup team. “I got to know the coaching staff a little last summer, so we have been talking and building a relationship. I love the tradition they have and what the school can offer me academically. I officially came up with my decision when I was there and it didn’t take me long because I fell in love.”
Makes sense that Auburn’s coaches, led by Terri Williams-Flournoy, would take a strong interest in Kelly.
The 6-foot-2½ forward has emerged as one of the top big girls in the state, blossoming last year by averaging 18 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocked shots a game.
She came on strong in the playoffs with 27 points in two state tournament games after pouring in 24 to help Albany get to Hammond.
Perhaps more impressive, after a short respite, the budding Lady Hornets’ star didn’t waste a lot of offseason time sitting around.
“She took two weeks off after the state finals to get her body rested up and then she was back in the gym working on things she knows she needs to get better at to help us as a team,” Darouse said,.
“This is a great thing for her. She has worked so hard and is very deserving. Auburn is a great place for her academics as well as for basketball. … It became very apparent pretty early that was where she was leaning and I am so proud of her and for her that it worked out the way it did.”
Fit is always important and Kelly noted the comfort level there, as well.
Three of AU’s current freshmen are 6-2 or taller as the shift to versatile, positionless basketball becomes more prevalent in the women’s game.
Kelly operates inside for the Lady Hornets out of necessity, but she also pops out on the wing at times.
“I feel like their style of play is exactly what I love to play,” Kelly said. “They play fast tempo up-and-down the court. They love pressing on every possession from one side of the court to the other and defense is something they really stress. I look at their style and see a chance to go into the post and also develop more on the wing.”
Timing was also important to Kelly.
With Albany’s focus squarely on building on the success of 2016-17, Kelly wanted to get a decision made so her total focus would be on her senior season.
The Lady Hornets lost three seniors from last year, which featured a District 7-3A championship as part of a 24-15 season, but return a bevy of talent, with Kelly, Mahogany Williams and Camryn Woods as the nucleus.
“I wanted to not rush my decision but wanted to make the right decision before school started so I can stay focused on my senior year and not have mind wrapped around all those opportunities,” Kelly said.
“We definitely have big goals this season. We want to not just make it back where we were, but we want to win it. Being state runnerup was an honor and privilege, but that’s not enough for us. We want to bring back a state championship to Albany.”
Added Darouse, “Natalie making this decision now reiterates how much of a team player she is. Of course she’s concerned about where she is going to college, but that hasn’t caused her to lose track of how important high school basketball is – to her and to her community. Her drive and focus shows that she’s not satisfied and wants more and that’s one of the many ways she leads our team.”
And when Kelly gets to Auburn, it will be a way for her to carry Albany’s banner to the highest level of college sports.
Former Hornet football star Cheyenne Labruzza will do so starting this fall at Tennessee and Darouse brought a nice share of the spotlight when she played at LSU from 1992-96.
“There is a lot of pride for me and I’m very excited about it,” Kelly said. “It’s a challenge I’m ready for and excited about. Albany has a lot of tradition and I’m ready to carry that with me to Auburn.”
Randy Rosetta is Sports Editor of The Livingston Parish News.
You can reach him at (225) 610.5507 or RandyR@LivingstonParishNews.com.
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