Wiedmer: Softball could start a run of UTC SoCon championships

Wiedmer: Softball could start a run of UTC SoCon championships

May 14th, 2019 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

The calendar said it was early, early January. The clock said it was 6 a.m. The thermometer said it was, in University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletic director Mark Wharton's words, "pretty chilly."

Nevertheless, Wharton joined the UTC softball team and coach Frank Reed at Frost Stadium that morning for an exercise in bonding and motivation.

"This is where it starts and this is where it finishes," Reed proclaimed as he pointed to home plate, knowing that the Southern Conference tournament — which the Mocs hadn't won since 2015 — would be returning to Frost in May.

Almost immediately after that, the whole team went to its hitting facility having been duly informed of Reed's lofty expectations for the 2019 softball season.

And as the clock turned from Saturday night to Sunday morning this past weekend, the SoCon tourney having been delayed more than once by rain and lightning, a UTC softball season once more ended the way Reed and Wharton hoped it would. It ended with an outright conference championship and a berth in the NCAA tournament, the Mocs traveling to Oxford, Mississippi, for a Friday night game against Ole Miss.

"I'm so happy we are getting to experience this our senior year," said catcher Amanda Beltran, whose grand slam in the opening inning of the second championship game against UNC Greensboro all but ended any doubts about who would prevail in a contest the Mocs ultimately won 10-1.

"For three years we couldn't get anywhere in the conference tournament. We called it the 'Chattanooga Curse' because we never could get past the third game. But this year we did. We have eight seniors, and we all wanted to go out this way."

When your coach has gone to the NCAA tournament eight times in his first 17 years on the job, you don't expect to miss the tournament each of your first three years in the program. But that's just what Beltran and her classmates had endured.

"We definitely didn't want this senior class to be the first group to fail to go to the NCAA tournament at least once during their careers," Reed said Tuesday afternoon. "And they had so much to do with making this happen. The biggest thing was their enthusiasm. They bought into being a team.

"I don't know how many times this year I'd get 17 or 18 players off our 22-girl roster into a game. They might not do anything more than pinch run, but they always did their best. That says a lot for them. It isn't always like that."

It didn't always click. The Mocs finished third in the SoCon regular-season standings. But they put it all together when it mattered most in reaching the NCAA tourney for the 11th time in school history.

"I can't tell you how many times I've watched the celebration video," said Beltran, who grew up in Southern California. "I've been waiting for this since I was a kid. And it's so cool getting recognized like this. Just this morning our maintenance people stopped us and wanted to get a picture made with us. This is a moment I'll never forget."

Nor will Wharton. As he is about to wrap up his second full school year overseeing UTC athletics, no Mocs team under his watch had claimed an outright conference crown, though this year's wrestling team did share in the regular-season title.

"I called a meeting of all our coaches a month ago," Wharton said. "I told them, 'We've fixed a bunch of problems, especially some financial ones. Now we need to get back to winning championships.'"

To that end, as the final out was being recorded late Saturday night, Reed put his arm around Wharton in a joyous Mocs dugout and said, "There's your championship."

It would be wonderful to report that these mighty Mocs, having overcome the Chattanooga Curse, having returned the program to its rightful perch atop the SoCon, having kept that factoid alive of every senior class having reached at least one NCAA tourney, went out and danced and sang and celebrated into the wee small hours of Sunday morning.

"I went home and ate a bowl of cornflakes and went to bed," Reed said.

"I went out with my parents to McDonald's because nothing else was open," Beltran said. "Had a plain chicken sandwich, fries and a Diet Coke. Besides, we were all so tired. We'd had a team meeting at 9:30 Saturday morning. It was a long, long day."

When you're not winning, every season seems to be a long, long one. But Wharton already has overseen many improvements, especially on the academic side, where UTC athletes just recorded the highest overall GPA in school history (3.178). That bettered the previous high of 3.137 set in the fall semester.

"There are a lot of accomplishments to cheer about right now involving Chattanooga athletics," Wharton said. "Our softball team is headed to the NCAA tournament, we just had our largest graduating class of student-athletes and now we get to celebrate another record-breaking term in the classroom."

And as Beltran also rightly noted regarding the softball team, "It's not over yet."

Wharton actually is more than a little hopeful that it's all just beginning.

"I think we've got a boxer's chance to make some noise," he said of softball.

He then added what any AD hopes his first championship will bring.

"This could kick-start," Wharton said, "a whole run of championships."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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