J.D. Kyzer has more soccer players than ever before and is convinced the talent level is up as well.
The centerpiece for his University of Tennessee at Chattanooga team's expected improvement is Kelly Downs, a junior from Soddy-Daisy who played the last two years at Middle Tennessee State.
Kyzer said as practice began that he would be glad to use Downs anywhere on the field, but she will be at center midfield as the Lady Mocs begin their season today at 5 p.m. EDT at Tennessee Tech. They open at home a week from tonight against Lipscomb at the North River Soccer Complex.
"Kelly is going to make a huge impact, I think," Kyzer said. "She was a great player when she was in town, and she's coming to us from another university. She's very adaptable and very fast -- she has crazy speed -- and she has excellent ball skills. She's also a great kid. She's a perfect coach's player."
Senior defender Chelsea Hurst said Downs earned the team's respect "as soon as she got here. She's a good player and she works hard. I think Kelly's going to help us a lot."
The two-time high school all-stater started 24 games and played in all 40 for MTSU in 2007 and '08. She left the Raiders, she said, because "I just wasn't happy. Something needed to change."
A long process to get her release from the Murfreesboro school limited her transfer options, she acknowledged, but she liked the idea of coming home and playing for Kyzer.
"I'm enjoying it a lot more than my other school," Downs said this week. "I am very happy with my decision. Most of us are from Tennessee, and I think that brings us closer."
She is far from the only reason for optimism for a team that went 5-14-1 last year, still with six fewer scholarships than most of its opponents. Hurst, from Lincoln County High, and midfielders Marlee Jenkins from Lenoir City and Arielle Lankford from Oliver Springs are the first seniors the program has had in three years, and all three are proven leaders.
D.K. Henry from New York was a second-team all-conference forward last year as a freshman, and junior Serena Allen from Farragut is another experienced, solid defender.
Sophomore defender Danielle Barr from Hixson has had a very good preseason, Kyzer said, and Kelsey Swann from Soddy-Daisy is a freshman who could play a lot in the midfield, as is Anna Cusick from Norcross, Ga.
Three freshmen who could play up top with Henry are two from Murfreesboro, Becca Smith (Riverdale) and Hayley Sloan (Siegel), and Oak Ridge's Rachel Johnson.
Two freshmen from 2008 state finalists, Taylor Davidson from Baylor and Sydney Dewberry from Siegel, are the goalkeepers. Dewberry has been injured in the preseason and Davidson will be the starter at Tech.
"She sees everything really well and she's always talking," Jenkins said of Davidson.
"That's a big help," Hurst said, "and we want to keep other teams from shooting on our goal. I definitely think we're going to score a lot more goals, too. We definitely have the potential."
UTC was outscored 49-18 last year, including 5-0 losses to Tennessee and Alabama, but lost eight times by one or two goals.
"I think we're definitely better, but it's hard to say how much better since we haven't been tested," Kyzer said.