Wolfe's hard work culminates in breakout season
Junior guard Kelsey Wolfe parlays renewed commitment into stellar play
Success in college sports is a fickle thing. With so many talented players and limited playing time, it takes a combination of determination and opportunity to make a mark. Her first two years at Virginia, junior guard Kelsey Wolfe spent much of her time on the bench. But after a summer of focused preparation and an unexpected opening in the starting lineup, Wolfe has impacted the Cavaliers in a big way.
A highly touted player out of Seneca Valley High School in Germantown, Md., Wolfe was the 2010 Gatorade Maryland Player of the Year and came to Virginia as ESPN’s No. 55 recruit in the nation. Yet Wolfe saw limited action in her freshman season, averaging just nine minutes a game.
Her sophomore season brought a new coach and a new system, as Joanne Boyle replaced long-time head coach Debbie Ryan. The change in style was a tough transition for the entire Virginia squad, but Wolfe particularly failed to find consistent minutes and never cracked the starting lineup that season.
“Last year, everybody had to learn our system, and Kelsey was involved in that,” Boyle said. “She just had a couple of people that were as good [as her] and were finding time, and her role was more coming off the bench. She was great in practice, but she was trying to find her role in games. Especially as a scorer and shooter, your confidence can waver, and I think that happened to her last year.”
Wolfe averaged less than three points a game, but she took lessons from the more experienced players on the team.
“Whenever she knew that [she] was lacking in something, she took heart in what the coaches were saying and worked on it,” senior guard China Crosby said of Wolfe. “You learn a lot from watching the game, and I really think that she learned a lot watching us.”
Wolfe channeled disappointment from her first two seasons into a renewed commitment to improving her play. She dedicated herself to work in the gym and said the offseason helped her “get [her] body right for the upcoming season.”
“I think she made some adjustments in the spring and decided that she was going to go into the summer and work hard and not worry about anyone other than herself,” Boyle said. “What I got back were incredible reports about how committed and how much of a gym rat she was, and how good she was playing this summer.”
Despite her strong work in the offseason, a starting position still seemed unlikely for Wolfe. Virginia had strong guards in seniors Lexie Gerson, an All-ACC defensive player last season, and Crosby, who was returning from an injury. But when Gerson suffered a season-ending hip injury earlier this year, Boyle tapped Wolfe to fill the sudden opening in her lineup. Stepping in as a starter for the first time in her Virginia career was a daunting task, but the guard felt confident in her preparation.
“I had a little bit of jitters, but I think in the preseason, and the weeks leading up to that game, I had some confidence in practice and from everybody,” Wolfe said. “[I had] a little bit of nerves but not too much.”
Wolfe’s impact was immediate. She scored 10 points in the season opener against James Madison, a 78-57 win, and that game only opened the floodgates. Wolfe broke through in her second game for 22 points and nine rebounds against Penn, leading Virginia in both categories. Her 12.3 points per game this season is tied for the team lead with junior Ataira Franklin, and Wolfe has formed a dynamic backcourt duo with Crosby.
“She plays very aggressively on both ends of the floor,” Boyle said. “I don’t think she wavers in her decision-making. Last year, she would pass on shots. This year, she wants the ball in her hands at all time, whether at the end of the game or the beginning of the game.”
The season has marked a stunning transformation for Wolfe, who is shooting better than 30 percent from 3-point territory and 80 percent from the field. Wolfe has led the Cavaliers in scoring in six of the team’s 16 games this season. But she also understands that her success is tied to her teammates.
“They give me confidence,” she said. “They have confidence in my shot. It really helps to feed off of China, Ataira, Talia [McCall], Simone [Egwu], and just everybody coming off the bench. Them having confidence in me allows me to have confidence in myself.”
Wolfe’s breakout season may surprise Cavalier fans, but her teammates never doubted the guard’s innate talent
“All the work that she put in the summertime, all the work that she’s put in since she was a first year, it’s not surprise at all,” Crosby said. “I’m happy that she’s finally shining when she needs to.”
With the meat of the ACC schedule still ahead of the Cavaliers, Wolfe must maintain her strong play against even fiercer competition. If her recent play is any indication, however, she has no intention of slowing down. Most recently, Wolfe scored 24 points in Sunday’s win against NC State.
It may have been a long road to a starting job, but after finally securing one, Wolfe is not letting go. “When the opportunity is given to you, you have to take advantage of it, and she did,” Boyle said.