Softball Opens 2017 Season Saturday
Mean Green Host UMass Lowell In North Texas Invitational
DENTON - After eight months, North Texas softball is back. The Mean Green take the field for the first time in 2017 when they host Arkansasl onSaturday at 1 p.m. in game two of the North Texas Invitational.
"We are all excited to get going," head coach Tracey Kee said. "When you have been practicing since September and now we are a few days out, you can feel the energy and the excitement beginning to ramp up."
North Texas returns nine players this season, including Kelli Schkade, a preseason Conference USA First-Team selection, and its entire rotation.
The 2016 campaign had several highs, including multiple wins over nationally-ranked Baylor, receiving two votes in the USA Today/NFCA Division I softball coaches poll for the first time in program history, setting a program record for stolen bases and matching a program-best team batting average mark (.279).
But the team faltered down the stretch and finished the season 22-33 with a 5-19 mark in C-USA play.
That is the past, and the team believes it's in a great spot to rebound in 2017.
"We are working really well as a collective group right now," Schkade said. "We have strengths all the way around - pitching, defense, offense - and that is going to take us further this year and put more wins in the win column."
Bailey Thompson, a sophomore outfielder, believes a changed mindset will also help put wins on the board.
"As a team, we came together off-season and put the title `All In' on this season," Thompson said. "I think if we all buy into the `All In' mentality, we will be very successful. We underperformed last year and are ready to prove people wrong."
The Mean Green open the season with a five-game home stand before hitting the road for two tournaments. Following this weekend's tournament at Lovelace Stadium, North Texas will defend its Getterman Classic title in Waco Feb. 17-19, and will then venture to the East Coast to compete in the UNC-Wilmington tournament Feb. 24-26.
The Mean Green begin their 24-game conference schedule on March 11 with a three-game series against UTEP. North Texas will play a home-and-home series against Oklahoma State (Denton March 15, Stillwater April 12), and will host No. 1 and defending Women's College World Series champion Oklahoma on March 28.
Instead of using its bye week for rest the last week of the season, the team will travel to Gainesville, Florida, for the Florida Tournament, and will face No. 4 Florida three times and Florida A&M, a tournament team from a year ago, once.
The C-USA tournament begins on May 10 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
Young and Ready
Though the Mean Green return offensive leaders Schkade and Danielle Gregory as well as their top two starting pitchers, Jessica Elder and Stacey Underwood, the 2017 team is young. Those four seniors are the only upperclassmen with Division I experience.
North Texas enters the season with 10 of its 15 players being underclassmen, and its lone junior earned a spot on the roster in the fall after playing two years for North Texas Central College.
Normally, teams would consider times like these as rebuilding years, but Kee is confident her players can compete right away.
"Our sophomores have a lot of game experience after coming in last season and competing right away and that will help us moving forward this year," Kee said.
Thompson was one of those freshmen last season that saw heavy playing time.
"I think it gives us an advantage this year because not many freshman get to come in and play right away," Thompson said. "For us to be sophomores and to have that experience under our belt this season helps us out because we know what to expect."
She finished the season with a .256 average across 54 games, 53 of which were starts.
The five freshmen will see action right away as well.
"When we signed this freshmen class and picked up the mid-year transfer, we needed kids who could come in and play immediately," Kee added. "The five of them have proven themselves in the fall and the off-season, and we are excited to see what they can do for us during the season."
One of the biggest off-season priorities was replacing Bryana Wade, who as a senior last year was the team's primary catcher. Wade finished her career as North Texas' career leader in runners caught stealing with 55.
Enter Nicole Ochotnicki, a 5-8 freshman backstop from Vista Ridge High School in Cedar Park, Texas, who Kee believes can excel in the role.
"I think Ochonicki is a phenomenal catcher and her future is incredibly bright," Kee added. "I think the hardest thing to do with a freshman catcher, especially when you are catching two seniors and a sophomore, is build the battery confidence."
That relationship has been built over countless hours between the staff and Ochotnicki, as well as Lindsay Gregory, who is penciled in as the back-up catcher.
"Nicole and Lindsay have stepped in and done a good job," senior pitcher Stacey Underwood said. "They haven't been nervous and they ask questions. They are doing really well and we are confident in their ability."
The Mean Green may only have 15 student-athletes on the roster, but the depth has improved this season with an increase in versatile players.
"Our number of athletes on the roster isn't big this year, but the combinations we can put on the field are very exciting," Kee said.
Four of the five freshman can play at least two positions and the walk-on junior can play all three outfield spots.
"The versatility of each player this year brings a different look than we had last season," Thompson said. "We are two to three deep at every position."
"We have built depth with our athleticism," Kee explained. "We have options and as a coach, that is what you are looking for in regards to the amount of options you have to put hot bats in the lineup."
North Texas opens Friday with a 4 p.m. game against UMass Lowell. The squad will return for two games on Saturday, a 1 p.m. game against Arkansas followed at 3:30 p.m. versus UMass Lowell. Sunday will be the final day of the North Texas Invitational, with North Texas playing the River Hawks at 11 a.m. and the Razorbacks at 1 p.m.