Kaylene Chadwell said Tuesday that during her recruiting process, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga tennis teams felt like a family. That was a primary reason the two-time Class AAA state singles champion from Centennial High School in Franklin chose the Mocs.
That family atmosphere has had much to do with the recent success of the women's team.
The Mocs are seeded third as the Southern Conference tournament begins today at Chattanooga's Champions Club. The UTC women (17-4) earned a bye and won't play until Thursday at 3 p.m., but the UTC men (6-13) start their tournament this morning against Davidson at 10.
"You could see there was something special here," Chadwell said Tuesday. "There are a lot of hard-working girls, and every year they've improved. Even before I got here, they were improving a lot."
Coach Jeff Clark came back to the program in 2007 after coaching at UTC from 1998 to 2001. Since his return, the women's win total has improved from eight each of his first two seasons to 18 last season. For that mark to be topped, the Mocs will have to advance to the conference finals. They were 7-2 in conference play, and both of their losses -- to top seed Furman and to No. 2 seed Samford -- were by 4-3 on the road.
The Mocs are 10-0 at home this season. A conference championship would be their first since 1990.
"I felt like when I came back in the winter of '07 that turning things around could be done, but the Southern Conference is a tough league and I knew it wouldn't happen overnight," Clark said. "We were fortunate to get some of the top kids from the South, and we've been able to improve the program with kids from the South, and it's something we're proud of. It's been a recipe for success moving forward."
The Mocs were well represented on the all-conference team. Kayla Jones was selected first team in singles, while Chadwell and lone senior Alexa Flynn were doubles first-team picks. Kelsey Coots and Claire Mulyadi made second team in doubles.
Flynn and Jones, a sophomore, are from Memphis. Alison Storie prepped at Science Hill in Johnson City, and Coots is from Huntsville (Ala.) High.
Clark already has signed Baylor standout Samantha Caswell for next season.
"Some of the Southern kids have come here for the junior circuit, and they go sightseeing when they're here. Then when they find out the campus is a half-mile from downtown, it's an easy sell," Clark said. "The Southern Conference is a very competitive conference and we've had a number of nationally ranked teams in recent years, which a lot of conferences on our level can't boast of."
If the Mocs can slip past sixth seed Georgia Southern on Thursday -- they defeated the Eagles 7-0 at Champions on March 8 -- they'll potentially get an opportunity to face Samford in a rematch of last Saturday's close loss.
"We're at our peak. If we're going to win conference, it's going to be this year," Flynn said. "It's going to be really difficult and we're going to have to work hard to win, but the opportunity is there, so if we don't win, I'm going to be disappointed because I know we can do it. Plus now we have home court and the atmosphere is entirely switched -- we have the energy and backing of our school and family."
Said Clark: "I think the girls would love another shot at both of those teams. The matches were winnable, but we just came up a little short. We can make some tactical adjustments in some matches that we didn't get the chance to do the first time around, but physically we're in good shape and mentally we're motivated, so we'll be ready for the challenge."
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6311.