Tracey Kee was facing a situation unlike any in her decorated career in college softball last year.
Kee played, worked as an assistant and took teams to the postseason as a head coach — all during 26 seasons at East Carolina. In some ways, that experience prepared Kee for what became arguably the turning point of her short time at North Texas last fall.
Kee took over a UNT program that was far from broken in terms of its performance on the field and returned a host of veteran players who were a little wary of change late in their careers. Kee wasn’t exactly in a comfortable position either, not after beginning anew after spending her entire career at ECU.
When Kee and her players looked back this week, they saw their introductory meeting when they addressed those uneasy feelings as the point when they laid the foundation for a breakout season. UNT will reach a key point in that campaign in a Conference USA series at Florida International this weekend, beginning with a 3 p.m. doubleheader today.
“I talked honestly and from the heart,” Kee said. “I didn’t throw my resume around.”
What Kee did say is that she had experience. And then she gave her players an honest assessment of their potential.
“I said from day 1 that I have taken teams with less talent further than this program had ever been,” Kee said. “With the talent we had in place, if we could get the players to buy in and commit to the process, at that point I knew that I would have inherited a gem.”
Kee told her players that they weren’t trying out in the fall. She didn’t plan to run any of them off or talk about waiting to recruit her own players.
The players in that room were her players. And that is just how they felt after meeting with Kee for the first time.
“It seemed like she already knew us,” senior infielder Jordan Terry said. “She welcomed us as her own, even though she didn’t recruit any of us. The way she approached it helped her connect with us right away. She knows how to get through to female players. I have never had a female coach. We really trust her.”
Terry had only one year left in her college career, just like Ashley Kirk and Brooke Foster.
Those seniors haven’t missed a beat while helping the Mean Green make Kee’s assessment of UNT’s talent level look remarkably accurate.
UNT (28-16) enters the series sitting in second place in C-USA at 12-5 and needs just two wins to break the program record for wins in a season — a mark the Mean Green reached twice under former coach T.J. Hubbard, including a 29-24 finish last season.
Foster is hitting .342, while Terry is hitting .310. Kirk is in the midst of her best season by far with a 20-7 record and a 3.04 ERA.
The opportunity to take over a team with those three players at its core was what made the UNT job attractive in the first place for Kee.
“I didn’t want to take over a program where I had to wait for my kids or my recruits,” Kee said. “I am a firm believer in working with what you have. I told them that they are my team from day 1. They are not trying out. When you take the fear away, it helps.”
UNT’s players admit now that there was plenty of fear when Kee first arrived to become the fourth head coach in the program’s short 11-year history.
“When we first heard about the coaching change, I didn’t think we would be this successful,” Kirk said. “I don’t like change. It’s scary.”
The way Kee handled it during her first meeting with the team and in the following months set the stage for UNT’s breakout season.
Kee has emphasized the mental aspect of the game and having fun, which is why UNT’s players began playing softball in the first place. Kirk has credited her performance this season partly to working with Kee, who has helped her refine her delivery and approach.
“We have really tried to impress her,” Terry said. “We have wanted to jump on board with what the whole coaching staff is saying and not second-guess anything. The whole new aspect of it has been refreshing. Change can be good. It’s affected us in a positive way.”
That has been the case not just for UNT’s players but also for Kee.
“Coming down to Texas, where I didn’t have any ties, completely rejuvenated me and my career,” Kee said. “The kids really embraced the change and bought into the vision of what we wanted this program to do. When you get 18 kids to buy in to something, beautiful things can happen.”
UNT believes it is starting to see some of what Kee envisioned come to fruition. The Mean Green ran off an 11-game winning streak early in the season and beat Oklahoma State in March.
“She took over a team that was pretty much back and made us better,” Kirk said. “We are not the same team as last year. We are constantly thinking and know what to think and how to do things. It’s a huge credit to her.”
Kee sees what UNT has accomplished this season as just the beginning.
“There is no doubt this group of kids helped me establish the foundation,” Kee said. “We are seeing some immediate results, but the future is well beyond what this group is doing.”
When UNT’s players look back on it now, they realize the first step was that initial meeting that set the tone for a new era in program history.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.