North Texas players trudged to the sideline following a long first practice in pads Tuesday at the Darrell R. Dickey Practice Facility for a couple of quick sprints across to the other side and back.
The exercise was an indication of how far coach Dan McCarney believes his team has to go in the early stages of spring practice before its season opener against Texas on Aug. 30.
UNT is coming off a breakthrough 9-4 season capped by a win over UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, a performance that sent expectations soaring.
McCarney’s standard procedure is to line his players up for some extra running when they fall short of those standards that are now just a bit higher.
“I didn’t expect us to come out and look like a bowl championship team with that huge class of guys gone, but I expected us to practice better,” McCarney said. “The standards and expectations are in place. We have enough guys who know how to practice and need them to show the guys who don’t. We didn’t get enough of that today. That is leadership that will come.”
The Mean Green is searching for a few new leaders and the form McCarney expects in the early stages of spring practice. UNT has worked out just three times this spring and resumed drills this week after taking a week off for spring break.
The adjustment process is one that could take some time as UNT finds its way after losing a class of 22 seniors, a group that included several long-term anchors of the program, including Zach Orr, Derek Thompson and Brelan Chancellor.
A few of those former players were on hand to watch as the next generation began the process of trying to fill the void they left.
That process has several of UNT’s returning players looking around to assess where the team is, where it must improve and where it has a chance to be better than before.
“We lost some starters, but I feel like we are a little more athletic than we were last year,” senior defensive end Daryl Mason said. “We lost some leadership with Zach Orr and Marcus Trice. We need some more leadership and to find a way to be consistent.”
Mason named senior linebacker Derek Akunne as one of the players he expects to help fill the leadership void.
McCarney cited the lack of experience UNT has at a few positions and the absence of take-charge players as reasons for mistakes that he found unacceptable.
“A mental error here, a bad snap there and a missed tackle can make a whole unit look bad,” McCarney said. “We were not very good as a team. We need to get better.”
While UNT has a long way to go, McCarney and his players are confident they can get there, even if they have to find new players to lead the way.
“I like the attitude of the team,” McCarney said. “[Strength coach] Frank Wintrich has said that there was really good leadership in the winter. I didn’t see that today in pads, which was disappointing. Leading is not just hooting and hollering at someone when something goes wrong — it’s gathering the players up, having a little rally cry, righting the wrong and not being afraid to get after someone. The coaches had to lead today. We will get back to the players leading, but it will take some time.”
UNT heads to West Texas
UNT will head to West Texas this week for what could be a tough, not to mention long, road trip with momentum on its side.
The Mean Green (19-8, 5-1 Conference USA) beat Oklahoma State in a nonconference game last week and turned around to take two of three from Texas-San Antonio in a key C-USA series. UNT will look to build on that performance in a doubleheader at Texas Tech today before a weekend series at UTEP.
UNT enters the week alone in second place in C-USA, just one game behind Tulsa and one ahead of a quartet of teams that includes the Miners. UTSA, East Carolina and Southern Mississippi also are 4-2 in the early stages of conference play.
“We are about to embark on a very long road trip to Texas Tech and then on to UTEP,” UNT coach Tracey Kee said. “UTEP is second in the conference in batting average [.318] and last in ERA [6.21]. Unless our pitchers do a better job of shutting down offenses, it will be a slugfest. If we can win by a field goal, that would be good.”
That seems like a possibility considering UNT is hitting .304 as a team with 23 home runs, a total that ranks second in the league.
No one in C-USA has scored more than the Mean Green, which has 169 runs on the year.
“We are scoring every which way possible, manufacutruing runs and hitting out of the park when needed,” Kee said.
UNT scored 19 runs in its series against UTSA and beat the Roadrunners 10-7 in the final game.
“Ideally you want to sweep, but UTSA came in here on a mission,” Kee said. “We were fortunate to get two.”
UNT knows building on that total at Texas Tech will be tough. The Red Raiders are 22-9 and will be looking to bounce back after losing three straight. That slide followed a 12-game winning streak.
“They are very athletic, and I hear it is a difficult place to play,” Kee said. “Not only that, it’s also a difficult place to get to.”
Mean Green rolling heading into match against Tech
UNT picked up its second straight win Monday, knocking off New Mexico and picking up a little momentum as it heads into the stretch run of its season.
UNT beat the Lobos 5-2 just two days after beating Liberty 5-1.
“A lot of women’s teams rely on confidence,” UNT coach Sujay Lama said. “We are starting to turn the corner.”
UNT will look to run its winning streak to three matches Saturday when the Mean Green hosts Conference USA rival Louisiana Tech.
Lama attributed UNT’s recent run largely to getting key players who have been battling injuries back in the lineup. Kseniya Bardabush, UNT’s top singles player, has been battling an ankle injury for much of the season.
Franziska Sprinkmeyer also has been battling injuries but returned to play doubles in UNT’s win over New Mexico.
The Mean Green’s win over Liberty doubled as a reunion of sorts. The Lady Flames are coached by Jeff Maren, who spent six seasons as an assistant coach at UNT.
Track and field
UNT aims to rebound in outdoor season
UNT will open the outdoor season Saturday at the TCU Invitational, aiming to rebound from a tough introduction to C-USA in the indoor campaign.
The UNT men finished eighth and the women ninth in their first conference meet since leaving the Sun Belt.
The UNT women won the outdoor conference meet in each of their last two seasons in the Sun Belt.
“Everything has a new reality now because of Conference USA and the indoor championships,” UNT coach Carl Sheffield said. “I was disappointed in how we competed as a group. I look at us differently now. Coming off two Sun Belt championships, you have a lot of confidence. That was really challenged by what we walked into in Conference USA.”
UNT knew heading into its first season in the new league that it would be a step up from the Sun Belt.
East Carolina won the women’s meet with 88 points, while UTEP ran away from the field on the men’s side, scoring 123 points.
UNT finished with 38 points in the women’s meet and 48 in the men’s meet.
UNT traditionally fares better in the outdoor season, where the races are more familiar for the Mean Green. UNT trains outdoors and is stronger in the longer sprints on traditional outdoor tracks as opposed to what teams deal with indoors on banked ovals and shorter events like the 60 meters.
UNT is hoping the switch to the outdoor season and the wakeup call it received in the indoor meets helps it improve.
“My sixth, seventh and eighth guys didn’t make the finals,” Sheffield said. “The majority of the group has realized that they have to do something special. That has helped us outside with preparation.”