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Thursday, March 04, 2021

Softball is a family affair for the Goelz sisters

Kinsey and Avery Goelz will suit up for the orange and blue for the first time on Feb. 13 against USF

Kinsey, left, stands next to her sister Avery, right.
Kinsey, left, stands next to her sister Avery, right.

It’s rare to witness siblings become Division I athletes. The chances are even slimmer to see them compete side by side. But Avery and Kinsey Goelz are an unusual duo — even if it’s not obvious when they step out on the softball diamond. 

The powerful pairing almost didn’t come to fruition, but they’ll now both suit up in orange and blue this spring.

Avery and Kinsey weren’t the first Division I athletes in their family. Their parents, T.J. and Liz, played baseball and softball at the University of North Florida, where they met during a workout.

T.J. said they met in the weight room. Toward the end of baseball’s workout, softball came in.

“She came in, and I said, ‘Who’s that?’” T.J said.

Their relationship blossomed and fairytale romance turned into 25 years together.

Shortly after their marriage, the Goelz became pregnant with their first child. Five months into her pregnancy, Liz’s routine checkup became a rush to the hospital. Doctors told T.J. his wife was in labor. 

“I almost fell down after hearing the news,” he said.

He then glanced down at his smart watch, realizing it was four months too soon. 

While at the hospital, doctors did everything they could to delay the birth because the baby’s lungs weren’t fully developed yet, he said. 

If the baby were born at 24 weeks, her chances of survival would increase from 10-15% to 40%, he said. He met with clergy while doctors were doing everything they could to stop Liz from going into labor.

“That was pretty eye-opening,” he said. “They wanted me to make funeral arrangements just in case the baby didn’t make it.”

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On April 30, 1999, the baby girl was born — 10 days after the doctors started treatment to slow down her pregnancy. T.J. and Liz, while admiring their new baby girl through a neonatal intensive care unit incubator, were flipping through a baby names book. They stopped at the sight of the name Kinsey, meaning victorious in Middle English.

“We needed her to win that battle and be victorious so that she could live,” T.J. said.

And that baby was Kinsey Goelz, who still had to fight for her life. 

She was born at 1 lb., 8 oz., and lost 4 oz after her birth. At two months, she had eye surgery, weighing only 2 lbs.  She was so small that T.J. could take his wedding ring and slide it over her hand and onto her shoulder. 

After 88 days in the neonatal intensive care unit, the Goelz strolled out of the hospital and into the parking lot for the first time as a family. 

Despite waves of emotions with Kinsey’s birth story, T.J. and Liz welcomed Avery, their second daughter, without complications on June 21, 2002. 

***

Growing up, the sisters, while different, shared an inseparable bond. 

As a 4-year-old, Avery tried to give herself a haircut — a story among Kinsey’s favorites. 

Kinsey said Avery picked up scissors and gave herself an impromptu haircut. The first time she did, she was only missing strands in some spots. A couple of weeks later, she messed her hair up in the front. 

“She had to get her haircut basically like a boy,” Kinsey said. “I remember my dad saying that if she ever got ahold of the scissors again, that they would just shave her entire head, so she never cut her hair again.”

Kinsey always lived life by the book, T.J. said. Avery was always outgoing and spunky.

“We think she’s (Avery) going to be a good lawyer because she makes really good arguments quickly on her feet,” he said. “There’s times where we tell her something and she comes back with something, and I’ll look away and go ‘Damn, she’s right.’”

The sisters see parts of who they are in their parents.

Kinsey said she inherited her father’s blonde hair and has to work to get good grades in school like her mother.

Unlike Kinsey, Avery said she’s book smart like her father. She also has her mother’s personality quirk of not backing down in an argument. 

On the softball field, Avery inherited her mother’s athleticism and speed, Kinsey said. 

“I’m nowhere near as athletic as Avery,” Kinsey said. “I always joke that I got my dad’s athleticism because he was a pitcher and didn’t have to do all the super-athletic stuff that a middle infielder would have to do.” 

***

As time went on, their connection only grew.

In 2015, the sisters were in a travel ball tournament championship game in California. It was one of the few times the duo played on the same team because of their four year age difference.

Kinsey came up to bat late in a scoreless game with a runner on third. Avery watched in the dugout as Kinsey sent a chopper over the third baseman’s head, scoring the game-winning run. 

Avery said she was jumping and screaming in the dugout, repeating ‘That’s my sister! That’s my sister!’

The sisters also fondly reflect on when they both clobbered an out-of-the-park home run on Kinsey’s senior night. The game was memorable, they said, because they shared the spotlight. 

But 700 miles limited their dynamic.

When Kinsey graduated from Lakewood Ranch High School in Bradenton, Florida, she committed and enrolled to play softball at another SEC school — Mississippi State.

While on a visit, Avery realized she wanted to be a Gator and committed in ninth grade even though her father was a diehard FSU fan.

Despite telling her Gator fan mother she could never go to Florida, she realized UF was a solid academic and softball option. Her father, she said, was supportive and wanted her to do what she wanted, so she wouldn’t have to transfer like Kinsey. 

Kinsey left Mississippi State for Florida after two years as a Bulldog. During her freshman fall, the infielder suffered an elbow injury. In the last game of the fall season, Kinsey played shortstop when a slapper hit the ball up the middle. She knew she had to field and throw the ball quickly because the batter was a speedster. After she fielded the ball, she threw it sidearm, getting it to the first baseman in time to get her out. 

When she released the ball, she felt a pop in her elbow.

The trainer told her to ice it, but the pain persisted. The next week, she returned to the trainer and told her that her elbow still didn’t feel right. 

Another week went by and it was the end of the fall season when all infielders had to complete a velocity test. Her throwing speed, she said, was 10 mph slower than normal. 

That’s when Kinsey knew something was wrong. The trainer, however, still wouldn’t let her see a doctor about her elbow.

She decided to go to her head coach Vann Stuedeman, who yelled at her and insisted that she didn’t need to see a doctor about her elbow, she said. Eventually, Stuedeman compromised and allowed her to see a doctor to help her recover from her injury mantally and physically. 

Meanwhile, Kinsey kept her family updated on what was going on in Starkville, Mississippi, T.J. said.

“They almost kind of blew it off like they thought it wasn’t real,” he said.

When Kinsey came home for Christmas break, T.J. said he had to get involved after seeing Kinsey in pain. 

“I had to go back up there and basically insist that she gets checked out and get a full MRI,” he said. “I think that they (Mississippi State) even got mad at me for that, but I’m super thankful that I did.”

Even after the MRI revealed that Kinsey had a partial tear in her elbow, the coaches and training staff tried to convince her that she didn’t need to redshirt.

Kinsey is a shortstop and throwing is a pivotal part of her position. T.J. said he told the coaching staff that she would get Tommy John surgery and miss the season.

Kinsey didn’t have to miss a full year after the surgery, but she was still sidelined for half the year, T.J. said. 

Frustrated by the coaching staff, T.J. said Kinsey’s injury wasn’t taken seriously even though she would do anything for her team.

He recalled a fall showcase game that he coached where she ran for a long foul ball on a windy day while playing shortstop. The ball kept blowing away from her but she stayed with it and ran face-first into the fence and caught the pole. She somehow managed to make the spectacular catch while T.J. hurried over to make sure she was alright. 

“She got up and she’s bleeding and her teeth are all messed up, and she’s just trying to spit and she’s like, ‘I’m okay, Dad. I’m okay.’”

He told Kinsey that he’d substitute someone for her even though she didn’t want to leave the field. 

“For them to assume that she was faking it or that it wasn’t a real injury is crazy,” he said.

The Alligator made several attempts to reach out to Mississippi State University athletics for comment but the phone calls and emails went unreturned. Stuedeman was relieved of her coaching duties after the 2019 season. She currently isn’t coaching softball.

When she decided to transfer, Kinsey said the road to Florida was a “no-brainer” because her sister was already committed.

***

Unlike Kinsey, Avery overcame her biggest obstacle before she laced her cleats to compete at the collegiate level.

Her high school softball team, the Lakewood Ranch Mustangs, coached by her father, were undefeated and considered the country’s best high school softball team

Their hopes for the 2020 season shattered when the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the nation. 

Avery was heartbroken,because she felt like all the stars aligned for the Mustangs to win a state championship based on their key players returning. Their roster had seven players who were committed to play Division I college softball. They also had won 38 out of their last 39 games.  

“I cried about it for a little bit,” she said. “I never knew that would be my last high school game. There's no senior night. There's no state championship. Like, we're just done, like, there's nothing we can do to make that up.”

However, the Goelz family is thrilled that the sisters are on the same team again. Liz and T.J. said they’ll covet Feb. 13. It will be the first time they get to see them take the field at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium for the first time — together.

“It’s going to be pretty emotional,” T.J. said. “It was incredibly special for them to get the opportunity to be at the same school and playing together again.” 

Florida head coach Tim Walton said he’s thankful to have the Goelz sisters suit up for the Gators. 

“They have a unique opportunity in front of them that not all siblings get to share at this level,” he said. “I look forward to seeing them grow as players, as people and as sisters competing together for championships as Gators.”

Feb. 13 will be a marvelous moment for the Goelz family after all the heartache they’ve endured. 

Avery and Kinsey will climb the concrete dugout steps, emerging from the Florida dugout for the National Anthem when the Gators play the University of South Florida. They’ll line up along the third base side with the rest of the Florida players, but Avery and Kinsey will stand out because of what’s stamped on the backs of their jerseys: Goelz. 

Contact Zachary Huber at zhuber@alligator.org and follow him on Twitter @zacharyahuber

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