The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga softball program needed just one year to return to glory (borrowing the catch phrase from football) and its usual spot at the top of the Southern Conference.
In 2013, the Lady Mocs suffered through their first losing season since 1994 and had trouble on and off the field. After the turmoil of that season and losing the first five games of the 2014 campaign, they seemed to be in for a long road back to the top of the SoCon.
But the team came together as the season progressed, quietly led by two four-year seniors, and put it all together at the end to win the Southern Conference tournament for the first time since 2011 and advance to an NCAA regional.
In Athens, Ga., UTC fell to Georgia and Alabama-Birmingham to end the season, but coach Frank Reed said there was more good than bad to take out of the spring of 2014.
"Obviously we're disappointed with how things went [in Athens]," he said Monday. "But you can't take away from the really good season that we had. Coming off last year, for the kids to come back to restore us to where we are in just a year's time is a great feat. I think part of the reason is the great seniors we had.
"We asked [the team] to do something in one year that probably could have taken two or three years to get back to. That's a tribute to the coaching staff, the seniors and everybody associated with the team. Even the kids who sat on the bench and didn't gripe and complain contributed."
UTC finished with a record of 34-17, was 17-2 at home and finished second in the SoCon regular-season race before winning the tournament title.
The pitching staff, primarily composed of junior Taylor Deason and sophomore Katie Henderson, posted a 1.95 earned run average, good enough to rank No. 10 in all of Division I softball for the regular season.
"I think we all took it as a big learning experience," Deason said of the season and the trip to the NCAA tournament. "Most of us had never been to that level or been that far. Just looking around at other teams, I think the big thing is when we get that far next year to make it even further we need to study the other teams more.
"We need to focus on ourselves, of course, and get our game right, but the big key in succeeding at regionals is study the teams that we are scheduled to play for a better chance at winning."
Looking ahead to 2015, Reed is encouraged by a team that loses four seniors and will be bringing in a talented group of signees, including Gordonsville, Tenn., pitcher Cori Jennings, who this past weekend homered and pitched a two-hitter to beat Whitwell in a TSSAA Class A sectional.
"We're excited about next year," Reed said. "We return our entire infield; we return our starting catcher; we return two pitchers that were under 2.00 ERA; and we have some great outfielders coming back in Nicole Osterman and Sam Taylor.
"And we're bringing in five really strong freshmen who will compete for playing time."
Infielder Alyssa Taylor said her first NCAA regional has inspired her to work that much harder to make sure the Lady Mocs can do even better next season.
"I think this season obviously was a lot better than last season, so I think that it's just one more step for us," she said. "I think the regional itself was an experience.
"Seeing how other teams [in the Athens Regional] play ball, I want to hit like they do. This summer is going to be really important for me to get in and get more reps so that I'm at that point when fall starts."
Deason will lead a rising senior class that includes starting position players Sarah Beth Roberts at third base and Osterman. Osterman's diving catch in a win over UNC Greensboro was featured on ESPN's Top 10 plays of the day, and her bat was a boost to the Lady Mocs after she rejoined the team midway through the season following a lengthy absence to work on academics. Marina Wilkerson and Courtney Ervin will be the other two seniors on next year's team.
Deason said she and the other seniors are ready to take over as leaders from departing players Kaiti Dutton, Stephanie Rieck, Tyler Templet and Hannah Thurley.
"We've talked about how we want to lead the team," Deason said. "Our seniors this year really led by example and set great examples for us to follow on how to lead a team.
"I plan on leading by my actions, and I think that's what the other upcoming seniors plan on doing, too. Just lead by example and the freshmen will have nothing else but to see us working hard and doing what we have to do to win a championship."
Contact Jim Tanner at email@example.com 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 ...