University of Tennessee at Chattanooga softball coach Frank Reed says 2014 is a "transition year" as the Lady Mocs try to shake off a disappointing 2013 season and return the program to its usual spot atop the Southern Conference.
UTC finished with a losing record both in conference (10-11) and overall (26-28) last season, and the team struggled with setbacks both on and off the field before quickly bowing out of the SoCon tournament with two losses and no wins.
But the addition of some newcomers and a renewed focus on restoring the program has senior outfielder Stephanie Rieck upbeat about the prospects for the season, which begins next Friday at the UCF Knights Invitational tournament at Central Florida University.
"I think we've improved a lot from the fall," she said. "We know where we want to be and we know where we want to go. Now it's just a matter of getting out there and getting a little extra practice and going all out.
"We put pressure on ourselves to do better. I've been here when we were No. 1, so we want to go out and prove ourselves and prove that we still are No. 1."
There's a bit of a climb to return to the top of the league, and UTC was picked to finish fourth in a preseason poll of SoCon coaches behind Georgia Southern, UNC Greensboro and Appalachian State. Sophomore outfielder Sam Taylor and junior third baseman Sarah Beth Roberts were first team all-conference selections, and Rieck and sophomore shortstop Alyssa Taylor were named to the second team.
Reed said the team has made progress since the fall preseason practice schedule.
"If how hard they work is any indication of how well they're going to do, then we should be OK," he said. "It's really been a hard-working team, and anything that we've challenged them to do is something that they've really taken on."
UTC has added five freshmen to the team as well as Chattanooga State transfer Marina Wilkerson, Georgia transfer Criket Blanco and Kentucky transfer Katie Henderson. Many of these newcomers will be expected to contribute early.
"It's a catch-22, because you want to give some kids a chance to show you what they can do, but you don't want to do that at the expense of losing a softball game," Reed said of how he'll approach the early part of the season. "You don't want the lack of momentum from a bad tournament to carry over to the next tournament or even into conference."
One of the highlights of the early part of the season will be a trip to Las Vegas to play Feb. 14-16 in the UNLV Easton Desert Classic. Rieck, from Chandler, Ariz., is excited for a chance to play close to her hometown.
"I get to have my parents at some games, and I get to have family and some friends coming out to watch," she said. "It will be interesting to be in that atmosphere, and we'll be playing some of those West Coast teams that are bigger than what we play in our conference. It will be good competition for us."
Rieck and Kati Dutton are the two four-year seniors on the team, and they hope to use their last season of college softball as a chance to bring the program back to where it was when they were freshmen.
"It's a bittersweet feeling, but I'm really excited," Dutton said. "This is my last year, so I'm just going to give it all I've got for the team, because we really want to restore Chattanooga softball.
"One thing that we, as seniors, have decided, is that we want to leave this program with a feeling that we have helped get it back where it belongs."
UTC makes its home debut as the host team of the Frost Classic on Feb. 21-23 with the Lady Mocs taking on Butler and Northwestern State in the opening day of the tournament.
Contact Jim Tanner at email@example.com or 423-757-6478. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/JFTanner.