North Texas Daily

Softball season preview: Mean Green eager to get back on track after dreadful 2016 campaign

Softball season preview: Mean Green eager to get back on track after dreadful 2016 campaign

January 16
20:01 2017

Clay Massey | Senior Sports Writer

When the Conference-USA softball tournament came to Denton at the end of the 2016 season, four teams missed the cut. North Texas joined Marshall University, Western Kentucky University and Middle Tennessee State University sitting on the sidelines, aimlessly watching.

As the rest of the conference battled for the trophy inside of Lovelace Stadium, North Texas players stood outside, working the tournament in their own backyard.

It was a tough pill to swallow.

“There wasn’t a kid on our team who could stomach what they had to do last year,” head coach Tracey Kee said. “They had to sit there and work a conference tournament they should have been competing in.”

During the four-day tournament, Kee hoped her players used it as a time of reflection. The young squad had to learn to grow up. Fast.

“All we asked them to do was take a life lesson,” Kee said. “I’m a firm believer in understanding that if you want change, then you have to make change. I think a lot of that was a huge learning curve for that team. I’m hoping they took that to heart.”

Last year’s class of eight freshmen now have a year of experience under their belts, and Kee only lost four players, two to graduation and two to transfers.

With the Mean Green returning its entire pitching staff from last season and key senior figures, like infielder Kelli Schkade, the key cogs of last year’s machine are back. Schkade hit .393 with 13 home runs in 2016, making her a force at the top or middle of the order.

What Kee needed to work on were her pitchers – so she completely overhauled how they work. Instead of pitching every day, each pitcher has a more game-like and intense workout.

“I think our pitching numbers last year were not impressive,” Kee said. “I think the pink elephant in the room was that we would struggle getting deep in games. After a lot of studying, we approached this fall in a completely different manner.”

The North Texas softball team gathers around head coach Tracey Kee as she recaps the first drill of practice and goes over the next. Dylan Nadwodny

The North Texas softball team gathers around head coach Tracey Kee as she recaps the first drill of practice and goes over the next. Dylan Nadwodny

Kee studied every single pitch her three pitchers threw in 2016, keeping track of which ones left which ballparks and what pitches they got behind in the count with. Kee then worked with her staff one-on-one to improve their game.

Kee said she has seen all three pitchers take serious strides in the more personalized work out system. Last year’s 4.31 ERA was third worst in C-USA. With a conference worst 146 strikeouts in 2016, Kee asked her pitchers to add pitches to their arsenals. With a focus on off-speed, North Texas is hoping to keep the opposition on their toes.

Last season, senior southpaw Jessica Elder was the only one with consistent off-speed stuff. Sophomore right-hander Lauren Craine expanded her repertoire in the new program along with Underwood, who was primarily a power pitcher.

“Mentally and physically the workouts have helped a lot,” Underwood said. “I saw improvements in Lauren and Jess. Instead of just going out there and throwing, it’s a more game-type situation.”

Behind the plate will be a pair of freshman in Nicole Ochotnicki and Lindsay Gregory. The duo are a part of the just four freshmen who signed with North Texas. Outfielder Camille Grahmann and Lindsay’s twin sister, Lacy round out the class.

Gregory and Ochotnicki will manage the game from behind the plate as freshman, but Kee is not worried – and neither is Ochotnicki. The 2016 freshman class is widely regarded as a softball smart class throughout the program.

“It’s a lot of pressure,” Ochotnicki said. “But it’s definitely manageable. I think we are very focused in practice and have the bats for the game. Last year was last year. This is a team who is ready to compete and ready to work together for a common goal.”

Kee also added a walk-on player in junior outfielder Victoria Blagg, who previously played at North Central Texas College. Grahmann is the planned lead-off hitter, moving Schkade out of that role.

With Schkade’s power and production, Kee wants to give her more chances with runners on in front of her.

“I think [Schkade] likes having the freshmen in front of her,” Kee said. “Kelli does Kelli. I never doubt her. She’s one of those kids that when she steps in the box I feel that she’s going to get a hit every time. She’s earned a lot of confidence.”

North Texas will hope to get the taste of a 5-19 conference meltdown in the midst of a 22-33 season last year out of its mouth with a tough schedule. The 2017 campaign features five Big-12 schools and two SEC foes, highlighted by a match up with Florida University, who were back-to-back national champions in 2014 and 2015.

The Mean Green open the season at home with the North Texas Invitational beginning Friday, Feb. 10 with a contest against the University of Massachusetts – Lowell.

And Kee is ready for her team to hit the field.

“I think a lot of people underestimate the talent that is sitting on this squad,” Kee said. “I’d like to see this team play with a chip on their shoulder. I think these kids will shock some people.”

Featured Image: North Texas senior infielder Kelly Schkade throws a ball to first base during an infielding drill in a practice on January 16, 2017. Dylan Nadwodny

About Author

Reece Waddell

Reece Waddell

Reece Waddell was the Editor-in-Chief of the North Texas Daily from May 2017 to December 2017. He previously served as the Sports Editor and Senior Sports Writer. Reece also worked at The Dallas Morning News and WFAA-TV.

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