For most of Frank Reed's tenure as softball coach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the Mocs were accustomed to being the hunted. When their 2019 season begins today in the Phyllis Rafter Memorial event at Kennesaw State, an experienced team will be on the hunt to regain its formerly normal spot atop the Southern Conference standings.
UTC is coming off a 26-30 record and a fourth-place SoCon finish in the 2018 season. It was a marked improvement over a 15-win 2017 season, and with 16 letter winners returning this season, the goal is a simple one.
"We are very hungry," said junior outfielder Aly Walker. "We got close last year, but we were disappointed. We have a lot of talent back and some really good freshmen, so we expect to get back to the top."
Walker is a key reason for optimism, having been voted the conference's preseason player of the year after batting .361 with four homers, nine doubles and a team-best 28 runs scored in 2018. She's joined in the outfield by returning starters Alyssa Coppinger and Hayleigh Weissenbach. The three combined for 424 at-bats.
Two talented area freshmen, Gordon Lee's Gracey Kruse and Southeast Whitfield's Sidney Swantic, will combine with junior Amy Lewis to give Reed plenty of outfield depth.
The infield is paced by seniors on the corners: third baseman Devan Brown, a preseason All-SoCon first-team member, and first baseman Emma Sturdivant, a second-team selection. Brown batted .275 and posted a .362 on-base percentage a year ago, while Sturdivant hit .282 and knocked in 30 runs, tops among returning players.
Expected to inject much-needed speed into the lineup is former Ringgold star Taylor Chadwick, who transferred from Georgia State and is expected to start at second base. After finishing near the bottom of the SoCon in stolen bases and extra bases taken, Reed is placing an emphasis on being more aggressive this year.
"That is an area we have to get better," said Reed, who mentioned freshman infielder Emily Coltharp as another speedy newcomer. "Taylor Chadwick is probably the fastest player on the team, and she's got some power, too. She's one of five lefty hitters we have, and they all bring speed to the game."
Senior three-year starter Amanda Beltran heads an experienced catching corps, while five pitchers return with experience, led by junior Celie Hudson and sophomore Allison Swinford, each having made 36 appearances last year.
"We have a lot of depth and there will be a lot of competition for innings," said Swinford, a Dalton High School graduate. "We feel like, as a staff, we were ready to take it to the next level."
Part of that was the hiring of Megan Betsa, a former All-America pitcher at Michigan, as the team's pitching coach.
"Coach Betsa brings a wealth of knowledge to our program, and we think she can take this staff to new levels," Reed said. "We feel good about our pitching — and this team overall. We've got experience and youth, and I feel they are ready to do great things."