The road to the Southern Conference volleyball championship has been a challenging one for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in recent history.
That path will be even more difficult next season, and not just for the Mocs.
On Thursday, the SoCon announced several changes to its postseason events, with a league release noting the cost-cutting measures enacted as a result of the coronavirus pandemic are "designed exclusively for the 2020-21 academic year and will be reevaluated" after the completion of that term.
Only the top four teams in baseball, softball, volleyball, men's and women's soccer and men's and women's tennis will qualify for the conference tournament. The men's and women's golf tournaments will be reduced to two days, with all conference baseball series played in that amount of time instead of three days.
UTC's volleyball team, which finished 7-23 in 2019, would have qualified for the conference tournament only twice in the past decade if such measures were in place: in 2015, when the Mocs won the regular-season title, and 2016, when they finished third. UTC, which has four SoCon tournament titles in program history (1987, 1996-98) finished as runner-up in both 2015 and 2016, its best tournament results since being runner-up in 1999 and 2001.
Mocs coach Travis Filar, whose 2020 signing class is rated the best in the SoCon by PrepVolleyball.com, said the announcement will "fuel the team's fire" as it tries to be one of the four volleyball teams among the league's nine to advance to the SoCon tourney.
"I think our team will certainly be in the mix to be competing for one of those top four spots in the league next season," Filar said Thursday. "That's our expectation, that's our goal, and it's already been put out there to the kids.
"I'm excited to see them work through this and respond to another piece of adversity that's come their way."
UTC softball coach Frank Reed will also have to deal with the increased challenge as only four of the league's seven teams square off for the SoCon title in 2021.
Seven times in the past decade, that would not have been a problem for Reed's program, which won the SoCon tournament as the No. 3 seed in 2019 and has nine conference championships since he took over in 2002.
"From my perspective, if we're not in that top four, we're not doing our job," Reed said Thursday, adding that he would consider not making the tournament in such a situation "a failure."
Reed, though, is looking beyond simply making the field — championships are the real goal, he said.
"I had a former athletic director tell me that as long as you're in the top three in the conference, we're OK with what you're doing," Reed said. "I told him he's got the wrong guy."
The SoCon's cost-cutting measures also include reducing its staff, freezing salaries and reducing travel, as well as changing media days for basketball and football and coaches' and conference meetings from in-person to virtual events.
"In order to address the significant financial shortfalls created by the COVID-19 pandemic, the league's presidents and ADs approved a cost savings plan for the 2020-21 athletic year that will assist with these challenges," SoCon commissioner Jim Schaus said in the league's release. "These are not easy decisions to make but are necessary given the unprecedented circumstances. I applaud our conference leadership in being proactive and strategic in addressing this issue.
"As we move forward, we cannot predict the future status of the virus. However, we will continue to make health and safety a priority and follow all necessary guidelines. Moreover, we certainly can and will revisit our policies as needed. We appreciate everyone's patience and understanding during this process."
UTC seniors Celie Hudson and Morgan Kazerooni are first-team selections to the College Sports Information Directors of America's academic all-district softball lineup for 2020. Hudson and Kazerooni were among the 12 players selected in NCAA Division I's District 3, which includes North Carolina and Virginia in addition to Tennessee.
The CoSIDA recognizes student-athletes in the NCAA's three divisions and the NAIA for their combined success in sports and academics, with all-district first-team selections considered for Academic All-America honors. Those will be announced June 8-11, with the recognition continuing this year despite spring sports schedules being cut short by the coronavirus pandemic.
Hudson was the 2019 SoCon pitcher of the year and ranks sixth in UTC softball history in completes games (53) and ninth in strikeouts (365). A chemistry/biochemistry student, she had a 3.69 cumulative GPA, was a three-time SoCon all-academic selection and appeared regularly on both the dean's list and the athletic director's honor roll.
Kazerooni was an All-SoCon second-team pick as a utility player in 2019, when she hit .300 with four homers and 14 RBIs. An accounting student, she had a 3.91 cumulative GPA and as a junior won the SoCon's Pinnacle Academic Achievement Award, which is presented to the student-athlete with the highest GPA on the conference championship team. She was also a regular on the SoCon all-academic team as well as the UTC dean's list and AD's honor roll.
Sweet home Chicago
Maurice Commander, a Chicago native who spent the past two seasons on the UTC men's basketball team, announced his commitment to the University of Illinois at Chicago earlier this week on Twitter with the caption "COMING HOME!!"
The 6-foot, 167-pound guard is expected to sit out the 2020-21 season but will have two years of eligibility remaining.
Commander battled injuries as a freshman but started all 32 games this past season for the Mocs, helping them reach 20 wins for the first time since they swept the SoCon's regular-season and tournament titles in 2016. He averaged 6.2 points and 2.6 assists per game, with his season high in points 22 at Wofford on Feb. 8, when he did all of his scoring in the second half.
Commander is one of five players from UTC's 2019-20 roster who will not return. Forward Matt Ryan and guard Jonathan Scott were in their final college seasons, and forwards Justin Brown and Rod Johnson will play next season as graduate transfers: Brown at Wagner in New York City and Johnson at Western Illinois.
The Mocs have added two transfers this offseason: guard Darius Banks from James Madison University and forward KC Hankton from Saint Louis University. In addition, Malachi Smith, who sat out this past season after transferring from Wright State, will be eligible in 2020-21.