The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga softball team enters 2012 with a lot of new faces, a lack of pitching depth and considerable uncertainty at key positions.
But the Lady Mocs players and coaches have the same goals they have every season -- remain the top team in the Southern Conference and make a return trip to the NCAA tournament.
The defending SoCon regular-season and tournament champions open the season Friday at Dot Richardson's National Collegiate Invitational in Clermont, Fla., with games against Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M on the opening day.
UTC lost six starters from last year's championship team, and coach Frank Reed said Monday that he's worked to give the team room to adjust to several new starters.
"We feel pretty good with the position players we have. We have a lot of flexibility," Reed said. "We brought in Nicole Osterman from junior college in Miami, and she catches and can play outfield, middle [infield] or she can play third. So we feel like we have backup.
"My biggest worry is going to be the pitching staff. We have good enough pitchers to win, but they have to stay healthy."
The Lady Mocs have only two pitchers -- senior Michelle Fuzzard and freshman Taylor Deason -- after freshman Brittany Perez was dismissed from the team in the fall for violating team rules.
Fuzzard, a fifth-year senior who won 18 games last season while also hitting 14 home runs and knocking in a team-high 75 runs, said pitching is her primary focus this season.
"I'm definitely more of a pitcher this year," she said. "It's just me and Taylor out there, so we're both going to see our fair share of innings. We see ourselves as the workhorses of this team."
With so many newcomers, Fuzzard said she recognizes the importance of her leadership this sesaon.
"It's the same thing I've been doing since my freshman year -- just leading by example," she said. "I'm not very vocal and I'm not going to be the one to call anybody out usually. Just watch what I do on the field."
Junior infielder Sara Poteat said the new Lady Mocs have come together well with the veterans through fall workouts and she feels he team will jell quickly.
"The chemistry is great," Poteat said. "I feel like a real close family with these girls, and even though they're young I have so much confidence in the young players."
Freshman Cheyenne Willis from Coffee County, who is making a position change to outfielder for the first time in her playing career, said the new players recognize there is a tradition of success at UTC.
"We feel a little pressure, but there's no need to be nervous," Willis said. "We will just go out there and play our best, and we're hoping we can keep doing as well as we've done for the past few years."
UTC's home schedule will begin Feb. 24-26 with the Frost Classic at Warner Park.
Contact Jim Tanner at email@example.com or 423-757-6478.