EDITOR’S NOTE: North Texas became a member of Conference USA at the beginning of July 2013. In its three-part series, the Denton Record-Chronicle is looking at the impact that UNT’s move to C-USA after 12 years in the Sun Belt Conference had on the school, how its athletic program fared and where the Mean Green is headed. Today’s final installment focuses on a highly decorated senior class across all sports that guided UNT during its first year in the league and the challenge of filling the void those players leave.
Kelsey Hodges didn’t travel far to get to North Texas when it came time to start her college soccer career. A short drive across Denton from where she was a star at Guyer was all that was necessary.
Four years later, Hodges is halfway across the country playing for the Seattle Sounders Women, one of 25 teams in the W-League. The league of international stars and elite college players amounts to the Triple-A of professional women’s soccer, one step below the National Women’s Soccer League.
“It’s been a culture shock, but I love it,” Hodges said. “The weather is great and I’m getting to play with people from all over the country and even Canada. The goal is to get to the top league.”
There aren’t many goals Hodges didn’t reach during her four years at UNT, where she became part of one of the greatest senior classes in program history across the sports spectrum. That class helped make UNT’s first year in Conference USA a successful one and left a huge void to fill heading into the school’s second year in the league, which began last week.
Hodges ranks eighth in UNT history with 32 goals and was the C-USA defensive player of the year. She helped guide the Mean Green to two regular-season Sun Belt Conference championships and a Sun Belt tournament title in 2012 that gave UNT its third NCAA tournament berth.
Hodges’ contributions to UNT are impressive, but they are just part of the tale of how seniors contributed during a time of transition.
Brooke Foster and Ashley Kirk finished their careers holding the UNT softball records for career hits (225) and wins (61), respectively. Laura McCoy’s 164 3-pointers with the women’s basketball team rank second all-time, while Alzee Williams scored 1,064 career points with the men’s team, good for 18th all-time.
Courtney Windham posted 879 career kills, a total that ranks 10th in the history of the UNT volleyball program, even though she played just three seasons at the school after transferring from Baylor. Clinton Collins earned All-America honors in track and field when he finished 15th in the semifinals of the 400 meters at the national outdoor meet.
And that doesn’t even take into consideration the UNT football team’s senior class that stole the show. Linebacker Zach Orr, wide receiver Brelan Chancellor and quarterback Derek Thompson led the Mean Green to a win over UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
UNT’s senior class will long be remembered for contributions that included helping the Mean Green advance to the C-USA title game in soccer, tie for second in the league’s West Division in football and finish second at the league’s men’s cross country meet. Those results were among the highlights of the year for UNT — moments that softened the blow of the program going through a full school year without winning a regular-season or conference tournament title for the first time in five years.
UNT officials and coaches acknowledge that filling that void the senior class left won’t be easy.
Softball coach Tracey Kee credited Foster and Kirk with helping her make a smooth transition in her debut season at UNT, when the Mean Green won a school-record 31 games. Basketball coach Mike Petersen cited McCoy as a steady influence and producer while playing for three head coaches in four years during a turbulent time in program history.
UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal saw the impact the seniors made in C-USA and knows they won’t be easy to replace.
“We have to use Conference USA as a means to attract the very best athletes and improve our talent level, because we have some talented kids we are losing,” Villarreal said. “Derek Thompson, Brelan Chancellor, Brooke Foster — you start going through the list. We are losing some stud kids who can play with anybody.”
A special football class
Several of those seniors played for football coach Dan McCarney, who was still basking in the glory of a breakout season that concluded with the Mean Green’s 36-14 bowl win when he put in perspective what those seniors meant to the program.
The group helped UNT snap a string of eight straight losing seasons.
“I have said ever since I took over this program that some senior class is going to be remembered for turning this program around on the field, off the field, in the classroom and the community for who you are and what you are,” McCarney said. “These guys have done it.”
The path UNT’s seniors traveled during their careers was anything but easy. Most joined the program when Todd Dodge was the head coach and stuck around when he was fired midway through the 2010 season. They played five games under offensive coordinator Mike Canales, adjusted after McCarney took over before the 2011 season and helped build the program.
The payoff was a 9-4 season that saw the Mean Green rebound from a 2-3 start to win seven of its last eight games. UNT made history along the way, making an eight-play goal-line stand in a 28-16 win over Rice that was extended by a holding call on the Mean Green in the end zone.
UNT capped its regular season with a 42-10 win at Tulsa a month later, snapping a 10-game losing streak against the Golden Hurricane that dated to 1970.
Seniors made those milestone wins possible.
Thompson threw for 2,896 yards as a senior and was at his best in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, tossing two touchdown passes and rolling up 256 passing yards on his way to MVP honors.
Chancellor scored two touchdowns and accounted for 181 yards in the bowl game on a day he also set the school record for career all-purpose yards with 5,503.
Orr led UNT with 123 tackles on the season and finished with 365 in his career, a total that tied for third in school history.
UNT’s senior class in football stood even more for what the Mean Green accomplished as a team than what each player achieved individually. The group led the Mean Green to the third bowl win in school history in front of a highly partisan crowd of 38,380 at the Cotton Bowl that Villarreal described as a sea of green while reflecting on UNT’s first year in C-USA.
“It means a lot to me,” Orr said of finishing his career on a high note with his fellow seniors. “It was nice to see all of us stick it out. None of us quit or transferred. We made a commitment to this university. We are the class that turned this program around. I will never forget these 22 guys.”
Hodges to the next level
There were times last season when the UNT football program — and what its senior class accomplished — overshadowed the achievements of the rest of the school’s programs and cornerstone seniors.
Hodges was at the top of the list of under-the radar stories.
The versatile senior was a three-time first-team all-conference selection and cemented her status as one of UNT’s top performers in its first season in C-USA, when she was named the league’s top defender.
“Kelsey will go down as one of the best defenders to ever play here, and that is saying a lot because we don’t give up that many goals,” UNT coach John Hedlund said. “She will be a hard player for us to replace because she was our anchor for our back line, our captain, our field general and was huge on set pieces. She was productive not only running our defense but also gave us those big goals that we needed.”
UNT posted eight shutouts, including blanking TCU and Oklahoma, despite losing starting goalkeeper Jackie Kerestine after four games to a knee injury. Hedlund credited those shutouts in part to Hodges’ play defensively.
Sophomore forward Rachel Holden described Hodges as a rock for the Mean Green as it made one of the most successful transitions for a UNT program in C-USA. UNT finished 14-7-1 and advanced to the final of the C-USA tournament, where the Mean Green lost to Colorado College.
Seeing Hodges make a run at a pro career has been rewarding for Hedlund and her former teammates.
“It’s really cool, especially since I had the privilege of playing with her,” Holden said. “It motivates me. She is an inspiration to myself and a lot of the younger players. It’s exciting to see her get this far.”
Hodges tried out for a spot in the pro ranks after scoring nine goals and posting 21 points as a senior to rank second on the team in both categories.
Hodges might have been easy to overlook at UNT in a year when the school’s athletic programs were loaded with top seniors, but she caught the attention of professional teams.
“Our coach called and said he had been following me in college,” Hodges said of Sounders Women coach Hubert Busby Jr. “He offered me a spot. I took it and have enjoyed it.”
Hodges lives with a host family and has her expenses paid for during a season that will end late this month.
Hodges’ hope is that playing in W-League will lead to a chance to play for Seattle Reign FC, which is one of the NWSL’s top teams and features U.S. national team goalie Hope Solo.
“Kelsey is very close to making that squad,” Hedlund said. “She has a chance to play professionally because she reads the game so well, is very intelligent and highly competitive.”
Hodges will wrap up her first season with the Sounders in the next few weeks and return to Denton, where she often looked around last year and realized that she had become a member of a unique batch of seniors who helped UNT make the adjustment to C-USA.
“It was a lot of fun,” Hodges said. “You don’t get to interact with everyone all that often, but we all know each other. It’s great. Some of the other seniors from last year are in the NFL and others are in professional sports. We will always be family.”
Those seniors will be able to return to UNT, slip into the sea of green Villarreal remembers fondly and watch athletes follow in their footsteps, secure in the knowledge they played a key role in UNT’s adjustment to a new era in program history.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.