Seven Southern Conference female athletes of the year have been from UTC, the most for any school.
2012 -- Michelle Fuzzard, softball
2010 -- Shanara Hollinquest, basketball
2008 -- Alex Anderson, basketball
2007 -- Lanni Marchant, cross country and track
2006 -- Shannon Wommack, cross country and track
2003 -- Jennifer Wilson, basketball
1997 -- Mary Jane Middlekoop, cross country and track
It could have ended with pain and a lifetime of regrets, but Michelle Fuzzard kept working hard and in the end made history for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga as the best the Southern Conference has to offer.
The fifth-year senior softball player was named the league's 2011-12 female athlete of the year on Tuesday, capping a five-year career during which the Lady Mocs won four conference titles and advanced three times to the NCAA tournament.
Appalachian State wrestler Austin Trotman was the male honoree. They will get their awards at the league's honors dinner tonight in Asheville, N.C.
"I knew when Michelle came here that she was going to be a special player," UTC coach Frank Reed said. "It was obvious up front how hard she worked and that she put the time in to be a great player.
"[This award] is not something that was handed to her. She's worked very hard for it and is justified in winning it."
The storybook ending looked doubtful in the spring 2010 season when Fuzzard tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee during a game in Florida. Fuzzard chose to take a medical redshirt and undergo surgery and rehabilitation. She worked her way back and has been a dependable pitcher and a potent part of the Lady Mocs' attack the last two seasons.
"[This award] means that the decision that I made two years ago to have surgery and take that redshirt year was completely validated with the recognition that has come for me and my program," she said. "Coach told me that I would look back on that situation -- not as a good thing but as a growing experience. And it's definitely been all that and more."
In 2012, the Huntington Beach, Calif., native led the SoCon in slugging percentage (.846), on-base percentage (.543) and runs scored. She was second in the league in three other offensive categories and was named SoCon softball player of the year for the second consecutive season.
She helped the Lady Mocs post the No. 1 batting average in NCAA Divivion I softball for the past two seasons and holds the SoCon records for career RBIs with 217 and total bases with 453. She also holds the league's single-season RBI record with 75 in 2011.
She also was 15-7 as a pitcher in 2012 with 85 strikeouts for the Lady Mocs (39-16).
"After her injury, everything that we believed about her was just confirmed," Reed said. "She took time to be that player that would sit in the dugout and learn why we did things a certain way and became basically somewhat of a coach."
"But at the same time she worked hard to get back following her injury, knowing we were going to need her in her senior year. She came in this year probably in the best physical shape in her entire career."
Fuzzard is the seventh Lady Moc to be selected an overall SoCon athlete of the year -- the most ever for one school in league history -- and she is the first softball player ever to earn the award.
"Southern Conference softball is on the rise," she said. "I'm in some elite company with this award, but in the Southern Conference we've seen this year that it's more than just Chattanooga softball. I think you'll see more softball players earn this award in the near future."
Fuzzard credits the emphasis on more than sports as a big part of the success of UTC women athletes in the Southern Conference over the past two decades.
"Something Chattanooga can pride themselves on is that we're well rounded," said Fuzzard, who graduated in 2011 with a degree in criminal justice and is working on a master's at UTC. "This award isn't just about what we do on the field or on the court. Since I've been here, we've had two other [SoCon female athletes of the year] with Alex Anderson and Shanara Hollinquest who not only got it done on the court but in the classroom and the community.
"I think if you ask around the athletic department at UTC that's what they're most proud of -- that we're getting it done in all those arenas."
Seeing the first softball player honored as the best athlete in the league is gratifying to Reed, particularly with the 30th anniversary of Title IX, the federal legislation that has opened opportunities for female athletes.
"It wasn't too many years ago that UTC didn't even have softball," he said. "The Southeastern Conference didn't have softball until fairly recently. When I first started coaching at Chattanooga State (in 1990), Georgia didn't even have high school fastpitch softball. I would go to Georgia and recruit slowpitch players and convert them to fastpitch because there were opportunities to play and go to school."
Reed warns against those involved in female college athletics from becoming complacent.
"I always tell our athletes that you can't take for granted the opportunities that you've been given," he said. "I still think there are some out there who don't feel that the female athletes deserve the opportunities they've been given.
"So we can never take it for granted, and we always have to put our best foot forward every day, and that's what Michelle Fuzzard does. She works hard every day. ... As long as we have players like Michelle Fuzzard, hopefully we won't have to worry about not having those opportunities for young ladies who come along in the future."
Fuzzard is pleased with her time at UTC.
"I knew it was a great decision in the beginning," she said. "I didn't know until now how great a decision it really was. I not only got my education, but I really grew as a person and as a player.
"Chattanooga is a great softball community. They really get behind their team, and we've have great fans and great support. And that's helped us all grow as a team and as a program. I have no regrets, and I think not a whole lot of athletes can say that they would do it all over again the exact same way, especially when they get injured."
Contact Jim Tanner at email@example.com or 423-757-6478.