New-Look Roster Brings Excitement Into 2016 Season
North Texas Opens 2016 Season At Hillenbrand Invitational In Arizona
TUCSON, Ariz. — Every team is different, and every team takes on its own identity over the course of a preseason and then it continues to evolve once the real games begin during the season.
With 11 newcomers and only four returners, the North Texas softball team looks to forge a new identity from a 2015 campaign that saw the Mean Green finish with a 19-31 overall record and 11-12 Conference USA record.
Entering the opening weekend of the 2016 season, there are obvious question marks, but there’s also a new air of excitement surrounding the program.
“Any time you add 11 new people to your roster, whether it’s freshmen or transfers, and you only return four players, there are going to be a lot of question marks,” head coach Tracey Kee said. “As a coaching staff, we’re incredibly excited about the talent on this team. We feel like have some of the hardest workers that we have ever coached. They have grasped the system well. I have never had a group competing every day like they do. I think we have prepared them.”
The four returners — Kelli Schkade, Stacey Underwood, Bryana Wade and Karly Williams — have taken on the mantle as leaders on and off the field. They are night and day different from where they were last year, Kee said, and they understand the goals of the program and have worked to build a new identity for this year’s team.
“It’s a credit to these returners,” Kee said. “If they did not have the leadership skills that they have shown this year, we would not be in the position that we are currently in, where I feel confident heading into the season.”
After the loss of 13 letterwinners from last year’s team, Kee targeted a specific kind of student-athlete in recruiting, and that vision and execution on the recruiting trail has already paid dividends in the months leading up to the start of the 2016 season.
“For us, we wanted to get kids in here who wanted to work hard, who were fierce competitors, who understood that the program is bigger than who they are,” Kee said.
“When you bring in like-minded student-athletes, it’s a time where it makes it easier to bond. When you’re surrounded by people with the same values and the same goals, it gives you an opportunity to really click and click quickly, and I think this group has done that.”
With so many new faces, there are obvious challenges, from retaining and building on skills and abilities learned in practice, to learning from mistakes, but there are reasons to be confident heading into the new season.
“There’s a lot of heart on this team,” Schkade said. “The freshmen and transfers are all excited to be here. This is a new opportunity for them that they haven’t had before. They bring that energy every day because they’re so excited and ready to take on new challenges.”
“We have come together as a group,” Williams said. “We’re taking this program to a totally different place than it has been in the past, and it’s been a positive thing for the program. Everyone works hard all the time no matter what and they bring the energy and intensity every day and that’s not something we have had every day in the past.”
Picked to finish 10th of 12 teams in the Conference USA preseason poll, there remains a quiet confidence among the coaches and players on this year’s team. Their journey in 2016 begins in Tucson, Arizona, where they will play five games in three days, beginning with No. 13 Arizona on Friday night at 7 p.m. from Hillenbrand Stadium.
“Our calling card is that we’re going to compete every game,” Kee said. “We’re going to put ourselves in position where we don’t beat ourselves with mental and physical mistakes. We will battle on every out, all 21 of them.”