SOCON SOFTBALL TOURNAMENT
• No. 2 -- UTC vs. No. 7 Appalachian State, 10 a.m.
• No. 3 -- Furman vs. No. 6 Western Carolina, 12:30 p.m.
• No. 1 -- Georgia Southern vs. No. 8 Elon, 3 p.m.
• No. 4 -- Samford vs. No. 5 UNC Greensboro , 5:30 p.m.
They may not be back where they want to be, but the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Lady Mocs made huge strides this year toward a return to the top of Southern Conference softball.
A year after finishing with a record below .500 and a quick exit from the league tournament, the Lady Mocs had a bounceback season in 2014. They were second to Georgia Southern in the regular-season standings, with a record of 30-19 overall and 13-7 in SoCon play. UTC ended with only one more loss than the Eagles, who lost two of three to Samford to finish the season at 15-6 in league play.
Despite the improvement over last season, second place isn't good enough for UTC coach Frank Reed.
"I feel like we cheated ourselves [at Georgia Southern on April 26-27]," he said following Sunday's win over Western Carolina to finish the regular season. "We had so many chances in the 13-inning game (a 6-5 loss in the series finale). ... We had opportunities to do it and just didn't do it, but that's the way the ball bounces. It's just frustrating."
Reed expressed confidence that his team would get off to a good start in the SoCon tournament starting today in Greensboro, N.C.
"We had a 30-win season, and we're on the upside of the conference," he said Monday at the team's banquet. "We should have a lot of positives going forward. Hopefully we kick that first game in gear and don't look back."
"We do have some momentum going into the tournament, and I think we're peaking at the right time. It's on us to take advantage of it."
Fresh off a weekend sweep against WCU, UTC opens tournament play this morning at 10 against Appalachian State.
"We've done pretty good carrying momentum, and it definitely helps us to play [quickly]," infielder Tyler Templet said Sunday. "So the momentum is definitely on our side.
"We could have won conference if it wasn't for one game, but we can't look at it that way. We need to take that into the tournament and take it to the people that hurt us along the way."
UTC's pitching duo of junior Taylor Deason and sophomore Katie Henderson have earned run averages of 1.25 and 1.79, respectively, and a combined record of 29-17. Henderson, with 16 wins, was named to the all-conference second team Tuesday, along with junior third baseman Sarah Roberts, who has a .344 batting average (.377 in SoCon games) and five home runs.
Deason said she and Henderson know it's up to them to set the tone early today.
"We've talked about it and talked about it with [assistant] Coach [Michelle] Fuzzard," Deason said at the banquet. "We just need to keep going strong like we've been doing all year.
"[Henderson is] probably going to start, and I'm probably going to close. That's what we want to happen -- just keep pitching strong for our team and give us the best chance to win."
The last time the Lady Mocs won the SoCon tourney and advanced to an NCAA regional was in 2011, when current seniors Kaiti Dutton and Stephanie Rieck were freshmen. Now it's their turn to provide leadership for generally a young team.
"We feel pretty confident," Rieck said. "We definitely know what we need to fix, and we know what we need to work on. We're going to make sure we give it our all, because for us seniors this is our last SoCon tournament and our last chance at regionals.
"So we're definitely going to go all out and make sure our underclassmen are with us."
After three years primarily playing as a reserve player, Dutton has blossomed in her final season. She's started every game in the outfield, batted over .300 for much of the season and hit her first two collegiate home runs.
"It's crazy, honestly, and everybody asks me what the difference is, and honestly I don't even know," she said. "Something clicked mentally. It's one of those things where you know you have the potential, but it was always something mental.
"I came into my senior year thinking I can't leave anything behind, and it's worked out."
With momentum from the final weekend of the regular season, and the motivation to return to the top. Rieck and Dutton hope to show their teammates what it's like to be Southern Conference tournament champions.
"Me and Kaiti were on that team that went to regionals, and we wanted to bring that back," Rieck said. "We wanted the girls to know what it felt like to be that top team and be the team that everyone knows is going to come out and win or come out and do great that day.
"It was something as a senior class just to bring back the Chattanooga softball that we all love and that fans love to come out and watch."
Reed naturally wants his players to have postseason success following a trouble-filled 2013 season, but for reasons that go beyond the softball field.
"Of all the teams I've coached, this group deserves it," he said. "This group deserves it just because of being good people, working hard, doing the right things and going to class.
"If there's ever a team that deserved to go to regionals just from that perspective, this team does."
Contact Jim Tanner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6478. Follow him at twitter.com/JFTanner.
Jim Tanner has worked as assistant sports editor at the Times Free Press since late 2006. He started at the Times Free Press in 2001 and worked as a news copy/design editor from 2001 through 2006. In addition to working as a night and weekend editor producing local and national sports coverage for print and online readers, Jim occasionally writes local sports and outdoors stories. Jim grew up in Ringgold, Ga., and is a graduate ...