When head coach Tracey Kee was hired as the fourth softball coach in program history in August 2013, many expected the program to experience a swift turnaround. In 16 seasons as head coach at East Carolina University, Kee sported a 684-362 record and led the Pirates to four NCAA tournament appearances.
So when the Mean Green finished with their best record in program history at 31-22 in Kee’s first year, it seemed like things were trending upward.
Until they weren’t.
Since their record-setting campaign in 2014, North Texas has gone 63-85 for a .468 win percentage. Last year, the Mean Green went on a 14-game losing streak during the last month of the season that ultimately cost them a berth in the Conference USA tournament – which was being hosted right in their own backyard.
Part of the struggles can be attributed to poor conference play. Including this season, the Mean Green are 25-40 in C-USA dating back to 2015. In 2014, North Texas’ only winning season under Kee, the Mean Green went 14-9 in conference.
So what has changed since their 31-win season almost three years ago?
Most of it is player inexperience.
Of the 15 players on their roster, 10 of them are either freshmen or sophomores. The nine underclassman hitters currently combine for a .239 average, while the lone underclassman pitcher in sophomore Lauren Craine has an inflated ERA of 6.60. Opponents are also hitting .318 against her.
With so many young players, it’s hard to reasonably expect this team to be good in clutch situations. When the game is on the line in the late innings, the Mean Green only have a few players to turn to for a big strikeout or hit with runners in scoring position.
Over the last three seasons, inconsistency has plagued this program.
And look no further than the turnover of players.
This past offseason, the Mean Green lost six players. Two of them were to graduation. The other four – Lauren Miller, Casady Webb, Mackenzie Dawson and Kay Kay Hayter – all left the program at various points throughout the summer and did not return to the team.
But the exits don’t stop there.
Prior to the 2016 season, five more players with eligibility left the program, including outfielder Taylor Schoblocher. Coming off a season where she posted career numbers, Schoblocher was a force in the middle of North Texas’ order. In 2015, Schoblocher hit .389 with a .833 slugging percentage to go along with 17 home runs and 42 RBIs. Pretty much everyone expected her to come back for her senior season and build on those staggering numbers.
Instead, she decided to quit the team.
Schblocher told the Denton Record-Chronicle in May 2015 she would remain at UNT as a student and finish her degree but did not feel comfortable playing for Kee or associate head coach Natalie Kozlowski.
“There were some things that happened during the year,” Schoblocher said in an interview with the Denton Record-Chronicle. “There was a bit of a hostile environment. I lost the love and passion for the game.”
It’s not the first time Kee and Kozlowski have been accused of creating a hostile environment, either.
Although she is one of the winningest active Division I softball coaches, Kee and Kozlowski were suspended and later fired from East Carolina in 2012 after a school investigation revealed, “an emotionally hostile environment in the program, identified potential NCAA violations and noted shortcoming to oversight of property and fiscal matters.”
Only Schoblocher has publicly said she left the program due to a hostile environment, but it begs the question why the other eight players left the past two offseasons.
Transfers happen all the time in college sports for all sorts of reasons. Having nine players leave the team over two years, on the other hand, hurts more than just chemistry and morale. It hurts your appearance and ability to win.
For a coach that has already been fired for these allegations once, appearance is everything.
Even more concerning moving forward is the fact that North Texas’ three best players will graduate next month. Seniors Stacey Underwood and Jessica Elder, who have been the backbone of the pitching staff, are on their way out as well as senior infielder Kelli Schkade, who has hit the cover off the ball this season.
Schkade leads the team in nearly every offensive category with a .360 batting average, .640 slugging percentage, seven home runs and 23 RBIs. Meanwhile, Underwood has a 2.82 ERA and 12-8 record, and thrown 136.2 innings this season – 4.9 innings less than Elder and Craine combined.
Only time will tell if the younger players can evolve into integral pieces for the Mean Green. One thing is certain, however.
If North Texas wants to get out of the rut of mediocrity, they will at least need to retain players to build around in the future.
Featured Image: On Sunday, March 12, North Texas softball head coach Tracey Kee (center) and UTEP head coach Tobin Echo-Hawk (right) met with the C-USA umpires before the game begins. Katie Jenkins