Reece Waddell | Senior Staff Writer
Drenched in sweat and breathing heavily, members of the Mean Green softball team looked down and found hardwood at their feet instead of the green grass they were accustomed to.
Practice was over, but conditioning had just begun inside the volleyball gym a few hundred feet away. Running back and forth on the court, each player swiped her hand along the floor before sprinting back to the baseline to finish the exercise known as a “suicide.”
In the midst of the controlled chaos was head coach Tracey Kee, shouting words of encouragement as her team completed the drill. A former softball player at East Carolina University, Kee is no stranger to hard work or being pushed to the limits – and requires the same level of dedication from her players.
“Ironically, I’m an incredibly shy person,” Kee said. “I’m in a job that requires an extrovert personality. Out here on the field is typically not my demeanor.”
After hanging up her cleats in the ‘90s, Kee began her coaching career as an assistant at her alma mater. Fast forward to 1997, and Kee was at the helm. During her span as head coach, Kee went 684-362-1, led the Pirates to four NCAA tournament appearances and earned Conference USA Coach-of-the-Year honors on three separate occasions.
Suffice it to say, Kee knows what it takes to be successful.
“[My coaching style] is very fundamental,” Kee said. “It’s very play-the-percentages. I’m a firm believer in discipline and hard work. It’s finding those kids who fit that mold that will help build a program.”
Some players, however, did not appreciate Kee’s style of tutelage.
This past offseason, five North Texas players with eligibility left the team, including Taylor Schoblocher, who led the Mean Green in homeruns and RBIs in 2015. Junior infielder Kelli Schkade was one of the players who defended her coach and took no issue with Kee’s discipline-oriented approach.
“I appreciate her kicking our ass in practice,” Schkade said. “I’ve been around tough coaches and degrading, hostile environments. Last year was nothing like that. I couldn’t even say one bad thing about Coach Kee.”
For Kee, it was not the first time she had been accused of creating a negative environment for players. Even though she is one of the winningest active division one softball coaches, Kee and her assistant Natalie Kozlowski were fired from ECU in 2012. According to a press release on East Carolina’s website, the university conducted an investigation, which “found an emotionally hostile environment in the program, identified potential NCAA violations and noted shortcoming to oversight of property and fiscal matters.”
Despite her fallout with East Carolina, Kee was not out of work long. Roughly one year after her departure from ECU, athletic director Rick Villarreal hired Kee to serve as the fourth Mean Green softball head coach.
“I love it,” Kee said of North Texas “I went into college knowing I wanted to coach. I wasn’t sure the route I was going to take – I was just fortunate enough things fell into place.”
After getting a master’s degree in education, Kee came to a crossroads in her career path – coach on the diamond, or teach in the classroom? In the beginning, Kee chose the latter, molding young elementary students’ minds.
Things changed once she received the opportunity to be a graduate assistant at East Carolina.
“To be on the college level, it’s really no different,” Kee said. “When you’re teaching a kindergartner to throw and a college kid – sometimes they’re of the same mindset.”
Although Kee is incredibly focused and intense on the field, players say there is a different side of her people may not know about.
A few weeks ago, freshman pitcher Lauren Craine was caught in a two-out, bases-loaded jam with North Texas clinging to a one-run lead in the final inning. With the game on the line, Craine got the batter to fly out to center field, sending the Mean Green home victorious.
As she came out of the circle and back to the dugout, Kee was the first person to greet her with a smile and a hug.
“She’s sweet and super encouraging,” Craine said. “I love [playing for her]. I feel super comfortable. I’ve never second-guessed being here.”
Kee recounted her embrace with Craine and said the thing she enjoys most about coaching is seeing her players perform well.
“You work so hard and you want these kids to be successful,” Kee said. “When they get a taste of it, you’re happy for them. For me, it just comes natural. Whether it’s a high-five, hug or kick in the butt, they all tend to run together.”
Now in her third season at North Texas, Kee believes she has the building blocks to create the program she envisioned when she was hired.
And for the first time since she arrived, Kee is content with the state of the team and the progress she has made.
“I would say I’m probably at my happiest point,” Kee said. “I feel I’ve got kids who are fun to be around, fit our coaching style as a staff and fit North Texas.”
Featured Image: North Texas softball head coach Tracy Kee had a record of 684-322 at Eastern Carolina University before coming to coach the Mean Green. Dylan Nadwodny | Staff Photographer