Tyra Perry of Illinois and Sharonda McDonald-Kelley of Michigan State will meet in a three-game series this weekend that is believed to be the first time two Black female coaches have squared off in Power Five softball.
The Spartans were scheduled to play three games at Illinois, starting with Friday's opener.
“I think it’s great that we’re evolving and becoming more diverse in our sport," Perry said. "I think it’s been a long time coming, so I’m happy to be a part of that particular change.”
Perry said she sees the moment as a sign of progress but was disappointed it took this long to happen. She said there are plenty of Black female head coaches and assistant coaches ready to make the jump to a Power Five program.
“Any time that there’s the first anything of this nature, it’s kind of mind blowing that we’ve come along this far and this is the first time something like this has happened," she said. "It’s taken too long.”
The milestone comes as the sport enjoys increasing popularity.
On-site attendance at the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City last spring set numerous records, including the average of 12,250 spectators per session. The championship series averaged 1.6 million viewers on ESPN. At the pro level, Athletes Unlimited is going into its fourth season and Women’s Professional Fastpitch is entering its second season with two new teams.
Perry and McDonald-Kelley are good friends and they know each other’s families.
Perry was hired in 2015 while McDonald-Kelley was hired before this season. Perry said she joins McDonald-Kelley and Duke’s Marissa Young as the only Black Power Five coaches. McDonald-Kelley’s younger sister, Brittney Williams, is in her second year as head coach at Southern University, a Division I program that is not Power Five.
Perry is in her 22nd season as a Division I coach. She has more than 600 career victories as the head coach at Illinois, Ball State, Western Kentucky and Birmingham Southern. Her Illinois teams won at least 36 games each of the past three years. The Fighting Illini enter the weekend with a 24-21 record.
Though Michigan State is 12-25 heading into the weekend, McDonald-Kelley has been successful throughout her career. She led Campbell to a 101-81 record the previous four seasons and won Big South Tournament titles with the Camels in 2021 and 2022 before she took over at Michigan State. Her teams went 50-19 in Big South play and advanced to NCAA regionals in each of the previous two seasons. In 2021, she was named Big South Coach of the Year.
Perry knew McDonald-Kelley was ready to make the jump to the Power Five.
“I was overjoyed to know that she had gotten that opportunity because I know that she’s a really hard worker and been a part of a lot of successful programs,” Perry said.
Perry said she hopes other Black women, such as Duke assistant Olivia Watkins, get chances down the road.
Perry said she's seeing growth for athletes of color on the field, too. She said it's a different landscape than it was when she started coaching.
“You know, it’s growing exponentially,” she said. “It’s fun now to see that there’s been a great growth and expansion and that more people are out there. And it’s not just even young Black players. I’m seeing more of every every ethnicity out there. So it’s fun to kind of see the sport grow in that way.”