Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Kendra Cullum Steps Into Justin's World

If I had put together a "Big Board" of the top first-time potential coaches going into last off-season, Houston graduate Kendra Cullum would have been in the top ten without a doubt. With a mind for the game, experience on that side of the ball from leading lower-level top-quality teams, and a desire to get into the coaching game, it was only a matter of "where" not "if" she'd catch on somewhere.

Kendra began her career at the University of Kansas, but after her freshman season, she traded in her blue and white for the still-patriotic red and white of the Houston Cougars, where she would go on to finish her career. The starting shortstop for two years, Cullum moved to the outfield for her senior campaign.

Cullum appears in the NCAA record books in a peculiar category... having been hit by a pitch eighty-nine times in her career, she ranks second only to former Oklahoma State Cowgirl Mariah Gearhart, who was plunked ninety-two times.

Snatched up to begin her coaching career as an assistant at Southeastern Louisiana, Cullum's squad has gotten off to a rocky start, but there have been bright spots... every "W" on the books for the Lions has been won by three or more runs, and after taking the series win over conference foe Abilene Christian most recently, they are looking to continue moving back toward .500 and the top of the Southland Conference.

You can find Kendra on Facebook; Twitter; and Instagram.

Justin’s World: How did you get started playing softball?
Kendra Cullum: I actually played baseball first because they did not have softball for young girls my age at that time. I was one of the few girls in the sport. When I was ten years old, my family moved to Lufkin, Texas for my Dad’s Football Coaching Career and that’s how I got involved playing softball. Then it all got crazy from there; driving 2 and a half hours every weekend or more to play in Houston, Dallas, etc.

Justin’s World: You’re originally from Texas, but you began your career at Kansas. Tell me what drew you to become a Jayhawk, and what you took away from that year in Lawrence.
Kendra Cullum: I still remember my unofficial visit at the University of Kansas. It was the year after Kansas basketball had just won a National Championship with Mario Chalmers’ historic miracle shot in the final seconds of the game against Memphis that led them to overtime and eventually led to winning the Championship. On my unofficial visit, I got to attend the first game of the season where they honored that National Championship-winning team from the previous year with videos, balloons, streamers, and finally, at the end, the team holding up the National Championship trophy for all of Allen Fieldhouse to see. The tradition, the support, and the feeling I got that night is a feeling I will never forget. I wanted to be a part of it so bad. As a sophomore in high school, I got caught up in it all. I fell in love with KU and still will never lose that love. In the end, it all came down to me being a Texas girl. I liked the snow for a day, but when you have to walk to class every day in it, you start to see why everyone is not a fan of the colder weather. Even though Kansas is not really a northern state, it is a lot more north than Texas, and the weather is very different. Playing an outside sport, it was just not for me. I am also very close with my family. It was miserable not being able to see my Dad’s football team play. I also had to watch my parents drive through the night on midweeks and spend all of their money on weekends to fly out to see me play. Although they would never admit how hard it was, I know it was not ideal for them. So I decided to come back to Texas and reach out to the University of Houston after I got my full release and luckily, they were happy to have me. I will never regret my decision to go to University of Kansas. For my career in coaching, I really think it was a blessing in disguise to witness different types of coaching. I got to take the stuff I liked from the different programs to better me as a player and for the future as a coach.  

Justin’s World: Now, the question that’s on everybody’s mind… do you have some kind of magnet inside you that draws the ball toward your body when you’re at the plate? (Serious question: Do you attribute your near-record number of plunkings to any one certain reason/factor?)
Kendra Cullum: It is crazy that while I grew up, I never thought in my collegiate career I would coin the term “Miss Hit By Pitch.” In high school, I was known as a very aggressive power hitter. At University of Houston, they needed me to play a different role. I was a “money ball” kid. My job was to get on base and/or move the runner in front of me. So the coaches at University of Houston worked on me with my bunting, hitting the ball on the ground behind the runner, what pitches to pick, and how to turn so if an inside pitch does eventually come, I wouldn’t get hurt by getting hit. Luckily, throughout my years, we always had a great lead off with Katie St. Pierre and a great meat of the order with Haley Outon, Holly Anderson, Kayla Holland, Melissa Gregson, and hitters such as those. I owned my role.

The question to if there was a magnet: *laughs* No, I don’t think so but I still remember when I set my mind up that I HAD TO HAVE Ten Man Jam tickets. If you know anything about “Ten Man Jam”, you cannot buy tickets. You have to win them through 100.3 KILT and you pretty much have to be present every week at a different Cavender's around the Houston area or call in every morning and be the 103rd caller to win them. Coach Kyla Holas actually allowed me one time to miss a fall workout (I had to make it up another time that day, of course) to go to Cavender’s with my posters in my hands to win those tickets. The time she let me make up the workout, I won those tickets. What does this story have to do with getting hit by pitch? After I won them the next week, Coach Holas used me as an example and asked why does it seem like I “ALWAYS get hit by the pitch.” She explained that it was “because I am so persistent. If I set my mind up to something, I will find a way to get it done. Whether it be winning Ten Man Jam tickets or turning my back to EVERY SINGLE inside pitch, I will eventually get the outcome I want because I am so persistent when I set my mind to do something.” It was one of the best compliments I have ever received as a person, because honestly, that was something I really never realized of myself. So did I have a magnet on my back: no, but as much as one tried to get an inside pitch by me without it hitting me, I would stick my elbow, leg, etc. out over the plate and would rather get called back by the umpire before I let an inside pitch go back to the catcher’s mitt.

Justin’s World: Your UH bio listed your career ambition as “becoming a college softball coach”. Now, a few months out of school, and you’re there. What is your ultimate goal for your coaching career? Is there a certain program that you’d like to coach, and/or is head coaching something you’d like to try your hand at?
Kendra Cullum: Ever since I was a little girl, I have always wanted to be a coach. My Dad is a coach, my mom is a coach, my brother graduated from Texas A&M and is a coach… Coaching is just in my blood. I have a very weird passion for sports. My fiance, Brian Brown, jokes around and says that the only thing I will ever truly get emotional about is sports (he is joking, of course! *laughs*). I honestly believe my purpose in life is to help others recognize, develop, and use their God-given talents to the best of their abilities. My ultimate goal is to coach others with integrity, honor, and dedicate myself to giving others the best possible chance of being winners, whether they are on or off the field of play. Honestly, I just love the sport and developing girls, whether it be with softball or just in life in general. I think my main goal while I was in college was to have the status of being a “Collegiate” Coach, but now that I have really gotten into it all, I have realized that whether it be tournament ball, high school girls, or collegiate athletes, I’ll love it regardless the age or the status. Like I mentioned before, it is in my blood and I have a passion for it, whatever level that may be at, and I will keep the same passion whether I am an assistant or if I am a head coach.

Justin’s World: Prior to being hired at SELU, you coached a high-level travel ball squad. Do you think having that experience under your belt, in addition to being a D1 athlete, gives you an advantage as you begin your coaching career at the highest level of college softball?
Kendra Cullum: I do believe that coaching travel ball while I played at the University of Houston helped me tremendously as a player and as a coach. I remember after my first week of coaching travel ball, I came back to practice the next day at the University of Houston and went up to Kyla Holas and Kristin Vesely and simply apologized. *laughs* That was the first time I had been on the other side of the ball and truly understood and shared the frustrations that my teammates and I had caused them throughout the years. Having any experience at all in the coaching world, whether it be coaching travel ball, helping with camps, or helping with young girls who are just getting into the sport, is a great experience. You get to truly practice your skills and methods as a coach with different athletes and you get to see that all athletes do not develop the same as the one they are standing next to. Also, me being freshly out of playing Division I softball, I think it only benefits me because I understand the struggles the girls have to deal with day to day. The pressures of school, softball, and minimal social life can be very tough. So the experience allows me to act as a mentor on days when things get tough for the athletes I coach.

Justin’s World: What would you call the proudest moment of your career?
Kendra Cullum: Honestly, the proudest moment of my career was both my first collegiate softball game because I had finally “made it” and also being on the softball field while my graduation was going on and walking off the field at the end of the day to my coaches, parents, and brother seeing how truly proud of me they were. It was not because I had an amazing game or a game winning hit but because I finally “did it”. I graduated with Cum Laude Honors and after playing softball and representing the University as positively I could, I was able to move on and try to live the life I had always wished for and dreamed of because of my softball and academic successes.

Justin’s World: Where do you see yourself in five years down the road?
Kendra Cullum: I cannot even imagine where I will be next week, but five years from now, I hope to continue my career coaching softball and promoting the positive growth for the sport worldwide.

Justin’s World: What’s been the biggest learning curve thus-far as you transition into the role of full-time college coach?
Kendra Cullum: The biggest has definitely been seeing how much work there is that has nothing to do with coaching the sport. I used to always joke with Ves [Kristin Vesely] saying, “What do y’all do all day until practice?” I thought she was joking when she said, “You have no idea.” But the truth is, I did not have the slightest idea. There are NCAA and compliance rules you have to abide by, recruiting calls every night, scheduling travel and eating arrangements, scouting reports, camps, making sure the athletes are eligible academically, and on top of all of that, you have 25 girls on the team (which, as most can see, is not the easiest thing in the world to deal with.)

Justin’s World: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Kendra Cullum: The best advice I have ever been given is by my parents. They have always taught me that in the athletics world, people will look down on or away from women’s sports but to always remain headstrong, to not give up on what you believe in, and that if you present yourself in a positive manner, that will take you a long way.

Justin’s World: Conversely, what’s the one piece of advice you’d give young players who want to play Division 1 ball someday?
Kendra Cullum: I feel that when I go out recruiting, I am not seeing girls play for the love of the game anymore. They are simply playing to be recruited or to impress someone else. The advice I would give is, it all goes by so fast, so play for the love of it all and if the love is not there, then get out. Life is too short to waste your time and others’ time who have a passion for the sport that you do not share. Try to remember why you played the game when you were 8 years old and play for that little girl inside of you every time you step on the field. The rest such as the scholarships, etc., will take care of itself if you play with passion.

Justin’s World: Let’s finish up with my favorite question. Say you were stranded on a deserted island, but could take three things with you. What would you take?

Kendra Cullum: Easy question! Whataburger (yes, the entire fast food joint), a friend, and a pillow.

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