Veteran Pawelko Embracing Success, Team-First Concept
gobearcats.COM Junior defender Kelli Pawelko
Junior defender Kelli Pawelko

Sept. 13, 2010

By Jeff Geiser

When head coach Michelle Salmon arrived at the University of Cincinnati and was handed the keys to the women's soccer program three years ago, one of her first tasks in the rebuilding efforts was to instill a team-comes-first mentality.

Fortunately for Salmon, many of her players were more than willing to adopt that team approach, with Kelli Pawelko a prime example.

Pawelko, a junior defender from Lemont, Ill., was named the BIG EAST Defensive Player of the Week in consecutive weeks within the first month of the 2010 season. Despite the individual accolades, she is quick to deflect the attention to her teammates.

"I think it's a great honor and it shows the hard work our team has put in thus far," says Pawelko. "I think it also a really good tribute to my teammates, because without them there's no way I would be able to do it."

Cincinnati's up-tempo and attacking style has suited Pawelko well. In the Bearcats' Aug. 29 victory over No. 16 Wisconsin, she scored the winning goal on a direct kick. Seven days later, Pawelko delivered an assist to Julie Morrissey in the match's final minutes, securing Cincinnati's 1-0 win over Western Michigan.

Salmon believes her aggressive game plans, combined with Pawelko's skill set on the right side of the backline, form a flawless union.

"Kelli is a perfect fit in that position in the way we attack. It plays to every one of her strengths," Salmon states. "She's a very good one v. one defender. But her greatest attribute is her ability to get forward. When she plays to that, and what you've seen early on is, she plays to her strengths. When she plays to her strengths, she's one of the best backs in the conference."

Despite receiving praise from her head coach as being an excellent individual defender, Pawelko again deflects the attention and demands more out of her play.

When asked one specific area she wants to improve she doesn't hesitate and responds, "My one v. one defending and to continue attacking out of the back. I think I'm doing alright. I think there's a lot of room for improvement, but I think (my season) is off to a pretty good start."

Pawelko initially chose to attend UC because the revitalized campus amazed her and she was looking to attend a school a little further away from home. Her parents - Tom, a technician at CBS Chicago, and Robyn Pawelko - still regularly make the nearly six-hour trek to Cincinnati to watch Kelli's games but that has become a lot more difficult as Kelli's younger sister Sarah is a redshirt freshman on the Ball State soccer team.

Upon Pawelko's arrival at UC, she was mentored by the likes of Kendall Loggins and Logan Ballinger. And now that Pawelko is a veteran player, she is returning the favor and tutoring the rookies, another byproduct of Salmon's arrival.

"It's the culture. When we got here, that wasn't the case. It was very much the upper-classmen being, `I'm in charge.' And we don't teach that way," Salmon declared. "I think there's a lot of ways to teach. There's teacher-student, but I think peer-to-peer is a very good way to teach. And the way that we recruit, we recruit two seasons out."

Teaching is one skill that appears to come naturally for Pawelko, who is pursuing a degree in middle school education.

"Kelli's biggest teaching role is actually going to be next year when the freshmen come in," continues Salmon, "and in that incoming freshmen class, we have a right back that we anticipate being a very good outside defender. At the same time, we know where Kelli stands and Kelli knows where she stands with the coaching staff. So, in that, Kelli's job isn't just to be a right back, it's also to teach freshmen, `This is where I've had success. This is how I'm successful' and to pass on some of knowledge that she's gained."

In addition to her team's best start (5-1-1) in the 30-year history of UC women's soccer, Pawelko's team-first attitude illustrates the culture change implemented by Salmon.