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UTC softball coach Frank Reed talks to players during a game against Furman last season in Frost Stadium.

It's a new year for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga softball team and sophomore pitcher Celie Hudson.

For one thing, she feels "great" — physically "the best I've felt in four years," she said Thursday afternoon at the team's preseason media gathering. And the former Henry County High School star has improved a couple of her pitches.

Even the generally lost season of 2017 brought some positives, said Hudson, who missed the first half of it while recovering from a bulging disk in her back and ideally would have redshirted. She was desperately needed down the stretch, though, as the Mocs' other main pitcher became unavailable.

Hudson started playing when UTC got to Southern Conference play, and she got valuable experience as a freshman against league competition. The more she pitched the better she got, and the team also became more competitive even on the way to finishing 15-38 overall and 4-14 in the SoCon.

"Last season built a lot of character," Hudson said Thursday. "It was very humbling."

The 5-foot-10 right-hander from Paris, Tenn., made 21 appearances, 18 starts and 11 complete games and wound up with the staff's most innings pitched by two. She was 6-11 with a 5.47 earned run average and a team-best opponents' batting average of .297.

The season starts a week from today at Monroe, La., where UTC will play five games in three days against Stephen F. Austin, tournament host Louisiana-Monroe, Prairie View A&M, North Texas and Grambling State.

The Mocs were picked in a tie for sixth with Western Carolina in the seven-team SoCon poll released Thursday, but two UTC juniors were first-team preseason all-conference: Emma Sturdivant as the designated player and Halie Williamson as the utility player. Senior second baseman Ashley Conner and sophomore outfielder Aly Walker were second-team projections.

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Sturdivant was the postseason first-team All-SoCon DP last year, when she batted .299 in 37 games. Conner led the Mocs with 27 RBIs and made the all-tournament team, and Walker batted a team-high .327 and was on the league's all-freshman team. Williamson hit .309.

Longtime coach Frank Reed, his assistants and the players don't believe the long-strong Mocs will finish at the bottom of the SoCon standings. They have experience and depth at every position, and Hudson and five newcomers on the pitching staff give them confidence in the circle spot that hasn't been there for at least the last two seasons.

The group is young, with Hudson and junior transfer Heidi Hall joined by freshmen Allison Swinford, Alexa Veamoi, Paige Peterson and Michayla Kelly-Harvey, which bodes well for the future with another pitcher in the 2018 signing class.

"I think we have six quality pitchers who can all get some time," pitching coach Michelle LaCourse said. "Of course two or three probably will separate themselves and pitch the bulk, but we have a complete staff with different strengths."

She agreed that Hudson's rise ball and changeup are better than they were and added that "she's throwing harder, her pitches are moving better and she has more tools." She also praised the work Hudson has invested in a customized conditioning program that has eased the strain on her back.

The disk problem goes back to her 11th-grade basketball season and a condition Hudson admits she should have had checked at the time. It's under control now, though.

"I'm so excited. I think I'm a completely differently pitcher than I was last year, and I feel great," she said. "I don't hit anymore and I don't have to pitch every game, so there's really no reason for it to be stiff."

UNC Greensboro was picked to win the league with Furman second, matching the Spartans' three-first place votes. East Tennessee State, Samford and Mercer were voted third through fifth.

Contact Ron Bush at rbush@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6291.

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