Optimism Runs Deep As Softball Begins Season
North Texas Face ULM In Season Opener Thursday Evening
MONROE, La. - The North Texas softball team's long-awaited opening day is here as the Mean Green prepare to take the field for the first time against Louisiana Monroe at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Mardi Gras Classic.
"Training's been going really well," sophomore infielder Lacy Gregory said. "We're at the level we need to be and at the perfect time. We have all the pieces we need in order to win."
The new-look team introduces nine newcomers and returns only nine letterwinners from 2017, including Conference USA All-Freshman honorees Lacy and Lindsay Gregory. Last year's team leader in doubles (11) and RBI (34), Lacy was named Preseason All-C-USA in January.
"It's really an honor to get that award after my season last year, but that's not what it's about for me," Gregory said. "It's about the team and what we're going to be able to accomplish this year, but it's an honor to represent the university."
Behind her on-field production, her humble attitude is what her coach likes most about her. For Lacy, it's not about the numbers in 2017, but the numbers for 2018.
"The thing I like about Lacy is that it doesn't matter to her," North Texas head coach Tracey Kee said. "She's getting after it every day and trying to improve her game. She understands that everything is built around the team. Whenever you have a humble student-athlete like that, you can't be happier."
Though North Texas returns seven players who started at least 46 contests last year, the roster consists of 12 underclassmen and only four players with more than one season on the team. Juniors Sam Rea and Sally Gastelo transferred from the junior college level and senior Grace Blagg logged her first year as a walk-on with the Mean Green in 2017.
The team's crop of newcomers is rounded out by sophomore Katie Clark, a mid-year transfer from Stephen F. Austin, and six freshman: utility player Miranda Holguin, pitcher Ally Lindsey, pitcher Maria Priest, pitcher Hope Trautwein, infielder Briana Valdez and utility player Kourtney Williams.
While such a large number of new faces would worry some coaches, Kee is excited for what the group brings to the team.
"We do have a lot of new faces in the program, but we've spent a lot of time since August teaching and prepping," Kee said. "We're excited. It's a new energy. It's a new regime and something that's going to be really good for us."
With junior Lauren Craine set to miss the 2018 campaign due to injury, North Texas will lean on three freshman pitchers. Lindsey and Trautwein were both district pitchers of the year as seniors at the 6A level in Texas, and Priest earned fast-pitch and slow-pitch all-state honors as a senior while leading her team to the school's first fast-pitch state title in 2016.
"I have the utmost confidence in this staff," Kee said. "I think they complement each other very well. They've done a great job of retaining what we teach and making adjustments, but you can't teach experience. It's a matter of getting them on the field, working through some things and getting their mindset where it needs to be."
North Texas' 55-game slate is highlighted by an April 25 meeting with two-time defending national champion Oklahoma, one of four opponents on the Mean Green's schedule who were NCAA tournament teams a year ago: Baylor, Louisiana Tech, Oklahoma and Tulsa.
After playing just 22 games at home in 2017, North Texas is scheduled to play 32 of its 55 games at Lovelace Stadium in 2018. The Mean Green look to build on last year's 13-7 mark at home and their 53-41 record at home under Kee's tutelage.
The Mean Green are picked to finish eighth in the league standings, behind Western Kentucky and just ahead of Southern Mississippi. The 2017 campaign ended with a 25-31 mark and a return to the C-USA Tournament, where seventh-seeded North Texas fell to Charlotte in the first round.
"We're not an eighth-place team in our opinion," Kee said. "It's something that's making this young group hungry."
The team's preseason ranking is just more fuel for the fire inside of every member of the team to prove everyone wrong. Their determination is exemplified in their many hashtags: #RiseUp, #Win, and #Team15.
"This group understands their identity and they're excited to put it out on the field," Kee said.
North Texas will take the field without Kelli Schkade, last year's team leader in average (.346), hits (64), home runs (9), runs (41) and stolen bases (22). She became the third player in program history to be named all-region after being selected to the NFCA All-South Region Third Team. She was also selected to the All-CUSA First Team and the C-USA All-Academic Team.
The team will continue Mardi Gras Classic play against Central Arkansas at 8 p.m. Thursday and will wrap up the week against Tenn.-Martin at 1 p.m. Friday.