After perhaps a quicker-than-expected return to the top of the Southern Conference, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga softball team now gets to take on the cream of the crop in the Southeastern Conference.
UTC (34-19) will open play today in the Athens (Ga.) Regional of the NCAA Division I tournament at 5:30 p.m. against Georgia, the No. 4 seed in the tournament coming off winning the SEC tournament last weekend. The Bulldogs (45-12) lead the all-time series with UTC 4-1.
Alabama-Birmingham and North Carolina State also are in the four-team regional in Athens.
The idea of the Lady Mocs returning to the NCAA tournament this year seemed far-fetched when the season began in February. They were coming off a losing season in 2013, and they lost their first five games in 2014.
As the season went by, the team comprised of young players, first-year transfers and only two four-year seniors began to come together. UTC finished second in the SoCon regular-season race and roared through the conference tournament with four straight victories to claim the championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
"I hate to be constantly repeating myself about the mentality and unselfishness of this team, but it's really there," coach Frank Reed said Tuesday following practice at Frost Stadium. "It's been such a fun team to get out and practice and help them get better.
"You just have to compliment the seniors for being leaders. And they've done it in such a quiet way. You see them and you see the team following them and doing what they're supposed to do."
Those two seniors who have been at UTC the entire time, Kaiti Dutton and Stephanie Rieck, went to an NCAA regional as freshmen, and they're been telling their young teammates what to expect when today's double-elimination regional begins.
"They all know that it's just another game," Rieck said. "So we all want to play just as loose and relaxed and goofy as we always do. But I think they see the importance of going out there and giving it your all, because it is a regional and not very many teams get to go."
One player who will be very familiar with the Bulldogs is sophomore shortstop Criket Blanco, who transferred to UTC from Georgia following last season.
"It's very weird because I never thought I'd have to play against them coming to Chattanooga," she said. "When we saw the name on the screen Sunday night [in the tournament selection show], it shocked me, but I'm very excited."
Georgia had an impressive run through the SEC tournament and is No. 3 in Division I in home runs per game. The Bulldogs are hitting .301 as a team. Alex Hugo shares the NCAA lead with 23 home runs this season.
To counter the Bulldogs' offense, UTC will count on pitchers Katie Henderson and Taylor Deason, who have proven to be a formidible team, posting the 10th best team team ERA in the NCAA.
Henderson, who was named most outstanding player at the SoCon tournament, pitched last year for Kentucky, so she's not afraid of SEC-caliber pitching.
"I know that they can hit," she said. "They're very, very good hitters and they've got some strong pitching. They're a very good team and probably one of the best in the SEC right now.
"I think it's a great opportunity for us to go out there and prove that we can compete at that level."
Similarly, Dutton said that eliminating mistakes will be a big factor for UTC.
"We know obvously with a team like Georgia who is coming off winning the SEC tournament, they're really hot right now," she said. "... We're going to make sure with their short game that we don't freak out as an infield and make a lot of mental errors, because that could kill us."
Reed said the key to success for the Lady Mocs will be getting the offense going to stay in the game and give his pitcher a chance to work without extra pressure.
"I don't think we're going to be intimidated going out and playing Georgia," he said. "I think the big thing for us is being able to score some runs. We're going to have to score some runs, and they're going to have very good pitching. You've seen that because they just won the SEC tournament, and they didn't do that with just average pitching.
"I think defensively we're going to be fine, and I think our pitching is going to be fine. We're just going to have to be able to score some runs."
Contact Jim Tanner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6478. Follow him at twitter.com/JFTanner.