The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga begins play today at the Southern Conference softball tournament in an unusual position - as an underdog.
After winning regular-season SoCon titles for four consecutive seasons from 2008 to '11 and finishing second with just two league losses last season, the Lady Mocs (26-26, 10-11) will open play in Greensboro, N.C., today at 2 p.m. as the No. 6 seed against third-seeded Georgia Southern.
UTC enters postseason play on a five-game losing streak, including a forfeit at Alabama-Birmingham last week.
The Lady Mocs could get a psychological boost with the return of senior second baseman Sara Poteat. She and fellow senior Kasey Tydingco left the team last week following a dispute that led to the forfeit at UAB, but UTC sports information assistant Tyler Brown said via text Tuesday night that Poteat has returned to the team but will serve a two-game suspension before she is eligible to play in the double-elimination tournament.
In its final regular-season games, UTC was swept at Elon in a three-game SoCon series, but coach Frank Reed said he saw reasons for hope heading into postseason despite the losses.
"We lost three games by one pitch," he said in emailed remarks. "You hate when you get beat like that, but you also know you were in the fight. Especially with two of the losses coming as walk-offs. And the kids know they were in the fight. Sunday I saw a team go out and have fun on the field and play its heart out up until the very last pitch of the ballgame.
"There wasn't an ounce of quit in any of the players, and we're going to need that heart going into the tournament."
With the departure of Tydingco and her .381 batting average and five home runs, the Lady Mocs will be without its best hitter this season. They likely will use junior Stephanie Rieck at first base in place of Tydingco, and a platoon of senior Ninjja Suetsugu and junior Tennessee Tech transfer Tyler Templet will play second base while Poteat sits out her suspension.
Freshmen will be counted on to step up and produce for the Lady Mocs to have a chance at winning the tournament and advancing to an NCAA regional. Outfielder Sam Taylor from Gordon Lee, shortstop Alyssa Taylor and catcher Anyssa Robles have all performed well in their first collegiate season, and they and other freshmen -- such as pitchers Rachel Albritton and Kasey Carson -- will be counted on to produce this week.
"Experience always makes a big difference in what happens, but I don't know that this tournament will be any different than playing in a conference weekend," Reed said. "I think this team is far enough along that it isn't going to matter if many of the players have had tournament experience. ... We know that there is a lot at stake, but we also know that it isn't something we can't do.
"We hope for our veteran players to be those leaders that express that to the younger players. We have matured quickly because we've had to. We need each athlete on the field to have the best game they can have individually."