This time of year in 2009, soccer was not on the mind of then Tyner-freshman Denisha Thomas. Since the school didn't have a girls' team, she was spending time with her friends with the hope that she might make the boys' varsity squad in the spring -- which she did, along with Aneshia Scott.
Coach Randy Young started the girls' program in 2010, and three seasons later it no longer bears the label of "new team." But the Lady Rams still must work to change their on-field perception.
Thomas has been playing school soccer for Tyner since sixth grade, while fellow senior Hannah Marshall started playing the sport when she was 4 years old. They say it's hard to progress as a program in the Chattanooga area, which is rich in talent spread out through multiple programs.
After going winless in their inaugural season, the Lady Rams won four games last year.
"It's hard because we feel like teams put us down before we get to the field," said Thomas, an All-District 6-A/AA selection last season. "Coach told us there were teams that don't even want to schedule us because we're a new team. What they don't know is that some of these girls have never played soccer before."
Young, who pointed out that Tyner principal Carol Goss and Chattanooga Sports Ministries have been instrumental in helping get the program off the ground, said the school's overall sports perception also hindered the Lady Rams' development.
"People perceive us as a football school," he said. "We're slowly starting to get talent in. I attribute a lot of that to the youth league. Their inner-city program does a great job of helping people become aware of soccer."
Tyner has been working with nearby Woodland Park Baptist Church to provide a place for home games, as the Lady Rams already practice there. They already have traveled into some ground-breaking territory, as Tyner is the only minority school in East Tennessee that fields both girls' and boys' soccer, according to Young.
"We used to be a laughingstock, but now teams know they are in for a dogfight when they play us," he said. "We may not win every game, but we won't roll over for anyone anymore."
Still, there has been a learning curve. A tactical team such as East Hamilton frustrated the Lady Rams until they realized what was going on.
"East Hamilton plays like Barcelona," Thomas said with a laugh. "They like to possess the ball and pass it around like a game of pingpong. It took me a while to figure that out until I watched them some. I felt like they were mocking us, but I now know that's how they play."
Young said he's still trying to get his players to believe they have a chance against the tougher competition.
"I challenge the girls every year to go take the district," he said. "Against an East Hamilton or a Hixson, they can't go in feeling defeated. We have the ability to play with those teams, so let's go ahead and shoot for the district."
Thomas and Marshall are doing their part to lay the groundwork.
"My goal is to help some of these girls get better, take pride in the program and want to continue to play even after we leave," Thomas said, "and not have the program drop off. Instead of thinking, 'OK, the seniors left, so we're going to be bad,' we want them to enhance their skills and be competitive, but have fun."