Natalie Kelly saw a number of changes in her first season at Auburn University in 2018-19 following a standout career at Albany High School, including the tempo and physicality of the college game and the level of competition.
But one thing did continue for Kelly – the success of her teams. After helping lead Albany to the Class 3A state championship game as a junior and the state semifinals as a senior, Kelly played for an Auburn squad that made the NCAA Tournament.
The Tigers made their third NCAA appearance in four seasons with a 22-9 record before losing to Brigham Young in the first round in Stanford, Calif.
“That was amazing,” Kelly said. “I had so much fun, not only getting to play in the NCAA Tournament but also just traveling with your team and your coaches and everything. It was a good atmosphere. Of course, we wish we could have gone further, but the opportunity to travel to California and just experience the NCAA Tournament is just something driving me and the team to go back and go further.”
Kelly, a two-time all-state, all-district and all-parish selection at Albany, saw limited playing time her freshman season at Auburn, recording five points, 10 rebounds, two steals and blocks in 49 minutes.
“It was tough, but it always is when you are coming from high school and you’re used to playing and being a big contributor to coming here your freshman year and realizing your role is more of a supporter,” Kelly said of making the transition. “Realizing you just have to get used to the competition and the grind of just more hours. It was definitely tough, but I learned a lot my freshman year from not playing as much and just watching. I definitely learned how the game is played here. The tempo is way faster.”
But it was the physicality of the game Kelly said was the biggest difference she saw from high school.
“It’s physical in high school, but in college it’s a totally different type of toughness you have to go through,” Kelly said. “Each and every day will be different. You have to get in a little rhythm playing in college. I just learned to just push through. You’re definitely going to have some hard days where you don’t know if you’re going to make it sometimes. When you push through, you really see how strong you are.”
Kelly worked on getting stronger in the offseason following a position change. After playing as a forward in high school, Kelly was moved to center for the Tigers entering the 2019-20 season.
“Most 5’s (centers) are kind of big bodies and that’s definitely not me,” said Kelly, who is listed at 6-foot-3. “I’m more of a lanky type so I'm just focusing on improving my game. I’m realizing I’m probably going to be more of a face-the-basket type player - jumpers and just flashing rather than muscling in the paint.”
In addition to the style of play in college, Kelly had to adjust to the travel involved. Auburn visited New Mexico (Albuquerque); Iowa State (Ames); St. Joseph’s (Philadelphia, Pa.); and Myrtle Beach and Elon, N.C. in addition to its Southeastern Conference schedule and the NCAA Tournament.
“That was, I felt like coming to college, one thing that was kind of cool but was really different,” Kelly said. “You’re not used to players from different places. When you travel a lot, it was tough. You leave straight from class to workouts and practice, hit the showers and you have to catch a plane. Then you get there later in the day, check into a hotel and have to get up the next day and play a whole game.”
Two road trips were particularly memorable for Kelly – a visit to Xavier in New Orleans in late November and to LSU to close out the regular season.
“It was actually kind of emotional being back home,” Kelly said of playing in Baton Rouge. “My family had caught that one (Xavier) and the LSU game. But being back, playing at LSU, that was kind of different. When you’re from Louisiana, that’s one of the top schools. It was actually kind of fun getting to play against them and just be there.”
Kelly has enjoyed her time at Auburn, both from the educational side and the athletic standpoint. She is majoring in communications but plans on switching to public relations.
“The school side is awesome,” said Kelly, who started summer classes July 1. “Auburn is a big campus, but it really doesn’t feel like it because the classes are kind of close by each other. The atmosphere is awesome and it’s all one big family. I’m really happy to know I’ve transitioned pretty good as far as education-wise and classes and getting used to all the scheduling that comes with it as far as mentoring and tutoring and that kind of stuff.”
The summer has consisted of going through individual workouts and conditioning with the team with Auburn preparing to make another run at the NCAA Tournament.
“For a lot of us, that was something to get used to but now that we have been through it, I felt it’s definitely a drive for us to get back,” Kelly said.