When the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga softball team opens its season today at noon against Florida Atlantic at the NTC Invitational in Clermont, Fla., coach Frank Reed will have more pitching options than he has had in recent years.

Two-time Southern Conference pitcher of the year Brooke Loudermilk returns for her senior season, and Kandice Irwin and Michelle Fuzzard are juniors with two years of experience in the rotation. Fuzzard is the Lady Mocs' starting first baseman but will remain a spot starter in the circle, while Irwin has become the primary relierver.

Loudermilk has a 48-24 record at UTC with 649 strikeouts, and she has a shot at passing Beth Alexander's career strikeouts record of 785 from 1999 to 2002.

But for the first time since her freshman year, Loudermilk will have serious competition for the role of No. 1 starter for UTC.

Over the summer, former Soddy-Daisy star Nikki Waters decided to return home to pitch for UTC after two seasons at Southern Illinois. Waters won 28 games with the Salukis and has a college career earned run average of 2.31 in 276 innings. She was 15-2 with a 1.73 ERA last season.

Loudermilk said the competition in practice is helping her get better.

"Its definitely different, but I love having her here," Loudermilk said of Waters. "She's just an all-around athlete, and she pushes me to work even harder.

Reed said he's getting used to the newfound depth.

"For the first time, we can use the term 'pitching staff' and not feel like we're using the term loosely," Reed said last week. "They all complement each other."

The challenge of bringing all this talent together and figuring out how best to use it falls to pitching coach Shaina Ervin. Entering her second season with the Lady Mocs, the former North Carolina State pitcher has a good understanding of what she can expect from Loudermilk, Fuzzard and Irwin, and she's been impressed with what she's seen from Waters in practice.

"She has a lot to add to the staff as far as her personality goes," Ervin said of Waters' work ethic. "She's so motivated and focused. ... I would maybe speak of her as a 'gamer.' She's just ready to play and wants to turn it on in the games."

For her part, Waters is happy to be back near her family and with her new teammates.

"It's been really good," she said. "I love being home. It just feels natural."