TEAMS TO WATCH
Baylor: The defending Division II-AA state champions look even stronger in the preseason stages of this season.
Signal Mountain: The Lady Eagles return a lot of offensive firepower from last season's District 7-A/AA semifinalist, and will battle with perennial powers Notre Dame and Chattanooga Christian for their first-ever region tournament berth.
Soddy-Daisy: The Lady Trojans return eight starters from last season's Class AAA state quarterfinalist, including forwards Hannah Wyatt and Summer Lanter, although the latter is just now returning from a summer injury.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
McKenzie and Peyton Thomas, Baylor: The twin sisters are looking forward to getting back on the field together in 2011, after McKenzie missed last season with a torn ACL.
Summer Lanter and Hannah Wyatt, Soddy-Daisy: The dangerous duo combined for 56 goals last season.
Simone Busby, GPS: The athletically gifted goalkeeper remains one of the top keepers in the city.
When preparing his 2011 schedule, Notre Dame soccer coach Jim Schermerhorn was reminded of the success last season's team had -- eventually -- and decided to do it all over again.
In typical fashion, the Irish will face one of the more rugged schedules in the state. Of course, entering this season, they have a title that they haven't had in past seasons.
Defending state champions.
"If you want to get better, you have to play somebody," Schermerhorn said with a laugh. "Some of my players feel the same way about the schedule, but it did us pretty well last season."
Having played perennial Class AAA power Farragut to a 1-0 decision in a recent scrimmage, the regular season schedule includes tournaments at Baylor and the Rivals Tournament in Memphis; non-district games against GPS, East Hamilton, Silverdale, Cleveland, Baylor, Bearden and Knoxville Catholic; and the usual battles with Chattanooga Christian and Signal Mountain.
Returning goalkeeper Grace Courter and midfielder Gaby Gurrola agree that although the schedule is tough, it only will get them better as the season goes along.
"Last season, we were kind of worried at times, but Coach just kept telling us that teams go through this; to keep our heads up," Courter said. "We just had to keep working hard and pushing through; look where it got us last season."
The team lost two key players from last season -- forward Kathryn Healy and defender Michelle Spangler, both of whom now play for three-time defending NAIA national champion Lee University. The captains feel that they have players capable of plugging in those gaps.
"We say that every year. It's like, 'Hey, we lost so-and-so,'" Courter said. "We just have to look at the talent that's behind them. As a goalkeeper, I just feel as long as I have experience in front of me, they can help wherever we might have new players at."
Gurrola noted that the approach this season is the same as any other -- although the feeling has changed.
"It's a good feeling, but we know to get back to where we were, we're going to have to work even extra harder," she said. "We're just excited to start the new season."
Schermerhorn agreed that it's a new feeling this season, but is quick to point out that overconfidence isn't in the team's vocabulary.
"It just means that more teams will put us as a target on the schedule," he said. "Our goal is to step up and meet that challenge every match."
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com or 423-757-6311. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/gh3sports.