One Last Ride
Four Seniors Play Final Home Games This Weekend
DENTON -- This weekend, the North Texas softball team hosts Florida Atlantic for its final Conference USA home series of the season.
Four seniors Danielle Gregory, Kelli Schkade, Stacey Underwood and Jessica Elder will suit-up in a Mean Green uniform for the final time at Lovelace Stadium.
Schkade signed with Missouri out of Albany High School but transferred to North Texas after her freshman campaign. Her sister, Jami, left Illinois and joined Kelli in Denton.
"I came to North Texas with my sister to be able to play with her in front of our family," Kelli said. "Although that didn't work out like we planned, I was still able to play in front of my family which means the world to me. My grandparents were able to watch me play more than they would have if I wasn't so close to home and nothing can compare to that."
Jami hung up her cleats after the 2015 season for medical reasons, but that didn't stop her younger sister from becoming one of the most decorated athletes in the history of North Texas softball.
Starting every game in her three-year career in Denton, Schkade has scattered her name throughout the program's record book. She is North Texas' all-time steals leader and the single-season record holder, while her 52 runs scored in 2016 are a program best. She ranks second in career average and on-base percentage at .336 and .415, respectively.
"I couldn't have had such a successful career without my team, my coaches, and my family," Schkade said. "I owe all my accomplishments to them and, honestly, I can't wait until the records I hold are broken because that means more talented, hardworking girls are coming through here to make this program better."
Underwood was a standout athlete in high school, but a torn ACL in her junior year left her in a tough position. She opted for surgery and had a solid senior season across five sports, but did not have a Division I scholarship offer.
So she decided to stay close to her hometown of Hico, Texas, and attended McLennan Community College in Waco. It was there that North Texas head coach Tracey Kee saw Underwood, who pitched against North Texas in a fall game.
Though she had a very successful year at MCC, the success wasn't immediate at North Texas. In her first two seasons, she combined for 15 wins with 11 complete games and two shutouts, while opponents hit .313 off her.
Things changed this season.
She has a team-high 12 wins, has tossed a team-best 13 complete games, pitched a team-high 140.2 innings and leads the staff with 84 strikeouts, while keeping opponent's at bay with a .274 batting clip -- all career bests.
"Last year I worked on getting my body right," she said. "This year was all mental. I knew my body was right, so having the confidence I gained late last season helped a lot."
A fellow member of the North Texas staff has seen Underwood grow the last two seasons and knows how far Stacey has come.
"It's been amazing to watch Stacey pitch this season," Elder said. "She has grown both mentally and physically. To stand by her side and be a part of the staff with her and Lauren Craine has been a great feeling."
Schkade, who has been with Underwood for three years at North Texas, has taken notice of Underwood's workload this season.
"Stacey has really put this team on her back and has been a champion on the mound this year," she said. "Each year she gets more comfortable and more confident and you can see that in her performances this year."
After a strong prep career, Elder attended Howard College in Big Spring, Texas, for two years before receiving an offer from Kee to come to North Texas.
"It's been a dream to play for North Texas," Elder said. "I always wanted to play D1 softball and to have this opportunity has helped me grow as a person and it's a blessing to be here."
As a junior, she earned 14 wins, the fifth-highest single-season total in program history. This season, the results didn't come early, but has been a catalyst of late for the Mean Green. Across her last six outings, Elder has limited opponents to eight runs -- seven earned -- and a .263 average, while striking out nine.
In conference, Elder holds a 2.14 earned-run average, which is best on the team, and has tossed five complete games with one shutout.
Elder tallied the 20th win of her career in the 1-0 victory over UAB on April 15, and has recorded a career-high eight strikeouts twice this season.
Gregory was a teammate of Underwood's at MCC and spent two years there before pairing up with Underwood in Denton.
And, like Elder, the opportunity to play at the D1 level was a dream come true.
"I think its every kids dream to go D1 and excel at the highest level," Gregory said. "I did not know where I was going after my time at MCC, and to have the opportunity to play at North Texas was something I couldn't pass up."
Since putting on the Mean Green uniform, Gregory has been one of the offensive leaders. She is a career .300 hitter and boasted a .325 average in her junior season, second best on the team. Additionally, she tallied 15 extra-base hits, with nine doubles, a team-leading three triples and three home runs in 2016.
She got off to a quick start in 2017, but a broken thumb at the Getterman Classic on Feb. 18 sidelined her for five weeks. Once she returned, her impact was immediate, recording three outfield assists in the series against UTSA from March 25-26.
"It was a great feeling to get back on the field and help this team win," Gregory said.
The seniors will be in action this weekend with a doubleheader on Saturday beginning at 1 p.m. All four will be honored before the start of Sunday's game at noon.