It was a record-setting year for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga softball team, but the coaches and players wanted more.
The Lady Mocs ended their season Sunday with an 11-2 loss to Alabama in the Tuscaloosa Regional, after beating Jackson State and Memphis on Saturday for UTC's first NCAA tournament wins since 2002 and first-ever appearance in a regional final.
UTC finished with a 44-14 record and a record 20 Southern Conference wins in the 2011 regular season. The winning percentage of .759 was the best in the program's history, and the Lady Mocs had a SoCon-record 368 RBIs.
"It's a season that I think a lot of people are going to remember," coach Frank Reed said Monday at the team's hitting facility at Warner Park. "Obviously we've raised the bar some to say that expectations have to be at least to this point in the future. And that's exciting with new players coming in."
In 2012, UTC will have to replace several key seniors from a team that won four SoCon regular-season titles and three league tournament championships: pitchers Nikki Waters and Kandice Irwin, starting outfielders Lyndsey Stiles, Lauren Flores and Della Harrison and slugging third baseman Tiffany Baker.
Irwin ended her career with 21 saves, third most in NCAA history, after recording eight this season. Waters, a former prep star at Soddy-Daisy, compiled a 14-4 record with an ERA of 2.40 in her final season after transferring from Southern Illinois as a junior.
Stiles, also a former Soddy-Daisy player, set a school record in 2011 with 35 stolen bases, and Flores from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe hit .315 this season and has been a staple in left field.
Harrison, a reserve player her first three seasons at UTC, had a breakout year in 2011. She hit .304 with eight homers, including two in the conference tournament.
Then there was Baker. The former East Ridge star set a school record with 18 homers this season, and her 50 career homers are a league record.
Baker said she thinks the success she and the rest of the seniors have been a part of will set the stage for even better things for UTC.
"I think we laid the groundwork to show what UTC has to offer for kids coming in, and that's a huge mental thing for recruits," she said. "Yeah, we wanted to go a little further this season, but you've got to start somewhere. And winning two games in a regional is definitely starting somewhere."
The cupboard is not bare for UTC next season. The 2011 SoCon player of the year, junior Michelle Fuzzard, will return after hitting .400 with 14 homers and setting a school record with 67 RBIs. In addition, she went 18-6 as a pitcher with a 3.04 ERA and will be the Lady Mocs' only veteran on a pitching staff comprised mainly of freshmen.
"I hate the term 'rebuilding year,' and I refuse to let my final season year in the program be a 'rebuilding year,'" she said Monday after a season-ending meeting with coaches. "We need to build up from where we left off [this season]. ... This should be a launching pad for this program, and I think that we're excited about where it's going to go."
Fellow all-conference players Vivian Morimoto, Sara Poteat and Kasey Tydingco and all-freshman-team catcher Natalie Powers also will return for the Lady Mocs.
Poteat said she feels she can assume more leadership next season in her junior year.
"All of our big leaders and seniors are gone, and I'm looking at who's going to have to lead the team next year," she said. "And I'm ready to step up, because I feel like I play better with more pressure. I like the pressure and I'm ready to step up and be that vocal leader."
Contact Jim Tanner at email@example.com or 423-757-6478.