There is a vast difference in the way a coach and a team's players view being the hunted instead of the hunters.
For the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Frank Reed, whose Mocs are the preseason favorites to win this year's Southern Conference softball title, the distinction laid upon his team by league coaches is met with skepticism.
For seniors Aly Walker and Celie Hudson — singled out as the SoCon's preseason player and pitcher of the year, respectively — the Mocs' role as favorites has been earned, even if it comes with added pressure.
"It's an honor, for sure," said Hudson, a key member of the 2019 SoCon tournament championship team. "It shows what people think and how hard work pays off. It can't affect how you play or approach games or practice."
Added Walker: "We learned last year you have to come out and play every game. Nobody is going to give you a win just because you have a winning record or are picked to win it. We know we have a target on our backs going into this year, but we're OK with that."
Reed, who is entering his 19th season at UTC, where he has earned 641 of his 1,117 career wins as a head coach, is paid to understand the possible pitfalls. Most notably, the Mocs must replace the powerful bats of Amanda Beltran and Halie Williamson, who combined for 19 home runs last season, as well as elite outfielder Alyssa Coppinger.
"If you look at us on paper, we look like we could be good," Reed said. "Picking us No. 1, I'm not sure I would do that. We're working more about being a team right now than everyday stuff. We'll just have to see. You never have a really good concept of who you are until you throw that first pitch."
The Mocs open the season Sunday with a 1 p.m. doubleheader against Austin Peay at Frost Stadium, where they will be back the next two weekends for their Chattanooga Challenge and Frost Classic.
One thing coach and players agree on is that the strength of this UTC team is in the circle, where Hudson (15 wins, 2.24 ERA in 2019) and junior Allison Swinford (10 wins, 1.93 ERA) form the league's top pitching duo. Reed said each had different ailments to deal with, but having two pitchers capable of reaching 125 innings or more should keep them both fresh this year.
"We should be able to get a lot of wins with those two," Reed said. "They are the type that can hold on to a one- or two-run lead in the late innings. We're excited about having those two at the top again."
If Reed seems excited to have the two back, Hudson is downright giddy to have Swinford as a cohort.
"It's great having her back," Hudson said. "We know we can rely on each other and that neither one of us has to start and finish a game all the time. We were by far the best staff last year in the SoCon. It's hard for the other teams having to beat the two of us."
The top of the lineup is also a known strength, with reigning SoCon freshman of the year Emily Coltharp (.348 average, 33 runs, 12 stolen bases) leading off, Walker (.363, 36 runs, 12 doubles, five homers, 33 RBIs) hitting third and first baseman Emma Sturdivant (.329, 11 doubles, 40 RBIs) batting fourth.
"We have our leadoff hitter back, our three-hole hitter and our cleanup hitter back, so we're going to be strong at the top of the lineup," Walker said. "We've also got a lot of quick players who can come in and run for us and help us steal a few runs. That's going to be a big deal.
There is also ample experience in fifth-year seniors Katie Corum, Morgan Kazerooni and Hayleigh Weissenbach, and there are potential breakout players in sophomores Gracey Kruse and Hannah Wood, speedy players in Makenzi Grider and Sidney Swantic who can change a game on the basepaths and six freshmen who will be given the opportunity to contribute.