The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women's soccer team kicks off the season with a lot of inexperience but more players than the group that went winless in the Southern Conference and 5-14 overall in 2013.
UTC coach J.D. Kyzer is entering his 15th year with the Mocs, and he has brought in eight freshmen. The team will have 14 first- or second-year players and only two seniors when it opens play tonight at 6 at UNC Asheville.
"We have a lot of new people," Kyzer said early this week. "Having new people you have growing pains, but they're good pains because once you get everyone on board things get going good.
"We have to take it little by little. We've got so many new people, so we've got to win the game against Asheville -- that's our goal right now. Obviously, our ultimate goal is to win in conference and win as many as we can. I think we're on the way to do that, and we have a lot of good people who can play the game."
Captains Crystal Mackezyk and Clare Latham take on the challenge of leading a team loaded with newcomers seeking early playing time in NCAA Division I soccer.
"We have a lot of freshmen coming in playing major roles, which is good and bad," Kyzer said. "It's like getting on a bicycle and trying to ride on the interstate. They think they know, but then you get in the real games and it's a little different. Everybody is fast; everybody has skills."
Mackezyk is the only four-year player on the team, and the midfielder from Columbia, Tenn., was selected to the preseason All-SoCon team. She said the freshmen have pushed the returning players in workouts.
"Preseason went really well," she said. "The freshmen came in fit and strong, and it was good for them to come in like that because everyone needed the competition.
"I believe now we have enough talent, and through preseason we noticed that we have more team chemistry than we've ever had before. And now this fall with the incoming freshmen it just makes us better."
Mackezyk and her teammates hope to prove opposing conference coaches wrong for picking them to finish ninth out of 10 teams in the league, but she is aware that she will have to help her young teammates achieve at the college level.
"Our team goal is to have a winning season, but for me I need to be a strong leader," she said. "A realistic goal for us is to have a winning season and finish in the middle of the pack. I think that would be the ideal for this team."
The Mocs will travel to Austin Peay on Sunday before opening their home schedule Aug. 29 at Finley Stadium against Tennessee Temple. UTC also will host Gardner-Webb, Lipscomb, Tennessee Tech and Alabama A&M in nonconference play and make trips to Vanderbilt and UAB before opening SoCon play Sept. 28 at home against Samford.
Soccer has grown in Chattanooga in recent years with a strong youth and high school scene, an exciting World Cup tournament in Brazil and the Chattanooga Football Club's postseason run attracting thousands of spectators to Finley Stadium over the summer. Kyzer hopes his Mocs can tap into that excitement, but he realizes that success on the field is the key ingredient to putting more fans in the stands.
"I think when we win, it's going to make a big impact because we're the big university in town," he said. "It's obvious that men's amateur team is doing well and they bring in crowds and that's good. But to translate that over to us, we've got to win games."
Contact Jim Tanner at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/JFTanner.