The 2014 Southern Conference volleyball season gets under way with a new look, and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga team hopes to take advantage following a disappointing 2013 campaign.
Last season, the Mocs lost their first 11 matches before getting their first win and finished the season 4-27 and 3-13 in SoCon play. But the departure of some traditionally strong programs from the league plus the return of a veteran group could give UTC a shot at moving up in the league this season.
"I think that the conference more than ever is wide open," fourth-year coach Travis Filar said recently, "with College of Charleston leaving and with App State and Georiga Southern leaving now. Traditionally those were the powers.
"I think there's still quality teams, quality coaches and quality players, but more than anything the conference is as wide open as it's ever been and that's something we're hoping to take advantage of."
UTC returns five of its six ususal starters from last season and was picked to finish fifth in the nine-team league that adds new teams from East Tennessee State and Mercer. The Mocs open the season tonight at the Husky Classic in Houston Texas with a match against Tulsa before matches against Northern Arizona and Houston Baptist on Saturday.
"Last year, as tough as it was, we battled through, and we worked our tails off in the spring," senior Brianna Guzinski said after practice Wednesday. "I think that's really going to show coming into this season.
"Our motto for the season is 'Dream big, build small.' So we're focusing weekend to weekend. The team that comes out this weekend is going to look drastically different than the team that you'll see at the end of the season."
Filar said Guzinski will be expected to take a leadership role with the team, something she's done in preseason work even as she's learned a new position.
"Brianna has embraced a new role," he said. "She was a hitter for us last year, and this year we've told her the best opportunity for her to be on the court is as a libero or defensive specialist. She has 100 percent grabbed a hold of that, embraced it and worked really hard.
"She has been great in camp for us, not only in play but in that leadership role."
Junior middle blocker Lauren Gainer played hurt for much of last season and sat out the team's spring workouts, but she said she's at 100 percent and is ready to step up to expectations set by Filar.
"I'm doing it for my team, and we're all just playing together," Gainer said. "We've been working on this for a while.
"Especially being injured all season last year, I had so much time to think about how hard I want to play. I'm ready to put it into action now."
After the trip to Houston, the Mocs will host Kennesaw State for their home opener Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Maclellan Gym. UTC will host two tournaments -- the Chattanooga Classic on Sept. 12-13 and the Scenic City Showdown on Sept. 19-20 -- before opening SoCon play Sept. 26 with a home match against Samford.
With two seniors and six juniors back, Filar thinks this team can put last season's tough run in the past and produce more victories in 2014.
"What's exciting is that for the first time in four years we have a veteran group coming back," he said. "Not only are they veteran in that they've been in the program for a long time, but they have played a lot of volleyball for us and have been in a lot of matches.
"I think that veteran presence has been great. ... This preseason I've probably had to talk less, and I think that's because our team has really taken ownership."
Contact Jim Tanner at email@example.com or 423-757-6478. Follow him at twitter.com/JFTanner.