Tracey Kee wasn’t sure what to expect when she arrived at North Texas a few months ago after leaving a place where she learned just about everything she knows about college softball.
Kee spent 26 seasons at East Carolina as a player, assistant coach and head coach. UNT gave Kee a chance to restart her career in Denton.
A key step in that process will come today when UNT makes its debut under its new coach at the Red and Black Showcase at Georgia. The Mean Green will face James Madison at 9 a.m. today in Kee’s first game before taking on the 23rd-ranked Bulldogs at 4:30 p.m.
The games will be the culmination of a few wild months for Kee, and what UNT hopes is the beginning of an upward trend in its first season in Conference USA.
“It has been a whirlwind,” Kee said. “I feel like I hit the ground in August and haven’t stopped one iota. It’s been all positive. It’s energized me. I have really enjoyed my time with these kids and how they are approaching this transition.”
Kee replaced T.J. Hubbard, who left the program after last season and is now on the staff at Louisiana-Lafayette.
UNT finished 29-24 in Hubbard’s last season.
Kee says she inherited a team with some talented players who will help the Mean Green be competitive in her first season. UNT was picked to finish fifth out of 13 teams in its first season in C-USA, while senior infielder Brooke Foster was named to the preseason all-conference team.
Foster was among a few players who said they have adjusted to Kee and been energized by her coaching style.
“Our team reacts well to the coaching style,” Foster said. “We are an intense and hardworking team, and she is that kind of coach. She is very intense and knows the game. She teaches us about the game strategically.”
Kee is familiar with C-USA and described the league as one that is more pitching-oriented as opposed to the Sun Belt, which traditionally is dominated by hard-hitting ULL.
Kee said she believes she has a staff that can hold its own in the league led by Ashley Kirk, who finished 15-10 last season.
“We are so excited,” Kirk said. “It’s a different atmosphere and is so much more fun. The pitchers were not really involved in practice before. Now we are involved in almost every single play. It’s more of a mental game now. I love what she calls the chess match. I am mentally drained after practice.”
Kee wondered at first if teaching the way she views the game to a whole new batch of players she didn’t recruit while also getting to know their parents would be overwhelming.
That has not been the case.
“Change has been fabulous,” Kee said. “It has been a boost of energy for myself. I was able to get back to basics with 18 kids who I am trying to teach a new system and a new culture to. That has made the time just fly.”
UNT’s players say they have improved along the way.
“We think through things and are getting better,” Kirk said. “She is fun but is still hard on us. She cares about us but also has a professional relationship with us.”
Kee and the Mean Green say they have put themselves in position for a breakout season heading into today’s opener and a new era in program history.
“I told the players right after the fall that I have taken teams with less talent pretty far, and if they trust the process and the vision and commit to hard work daily that their future could be very bright,” Kee said. “They have responded to that.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.