The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga soccer team doesn't have to worry about meeting great expectations this season. In fact, low expectations are a high source of incentive for J.D. Kyzer's Mocs.
After going 3-13-1 overall and 1-10 in the Southern Conference last year, following a 1-9-1 league record in 2011, UTC was picked to finish 11th out of 11 teams this season, which starts tonight at 7 with a home nonconference game (no admission charge) at Finley Stadium against Austin Peay.
"That's OK. That's partly deserved and partly not," Kyzer said on the eve of his 14th season as the program's head coach. "We're still behind everybody in the conference in scholarships, but it's easier to recruit now from the players' perspective, and we're able to recruit more now than we have been in the past."
The soccer program has done a masterful job of raising its Academic Progress Rate, and recruiting classes the last couple of years have started the process of improving the talent level and depth, Kyzer and the players believe.
"I think we've got what it takes to be better. Definitely even from last year to this year, our depth has improved," said senior defender Kelly Crew, a team captain along with senior goalkeeper Taylor Mangrum and junior midfielder Crystal Mackezyk. "It's sad this is my senior year, in a way. I'd like to keep playing with these girls."
The former Tennessee Wesleyan player from Brisbane, Australia, said also that "I love being the underdog. I think that's what our motivation is going to be. We all feel we're going to be better than [others] judge us to be."
The Mocs scored only 16 goals last year, while giving up 48, and Crew said she sees a stronger offense for sure.
One of the reasons for that is freshman Monica Speth from Janesville, Wis., who scored UTC's goal in its scrimmage last weekend against Murray State.
Speth and her family had liked Chattanooga since making a stopover in the city on a trip, and this was one of the areas she specifically checked out when looking for a school where she could combine soccer with a biology major that would help her become a veterinarian. The UTC coaches, meanwhile, watched her in a tournament in Raleigh, N.C., and liked what they saw as well.
Speth, who led Craig High School in Janesville to back-to-back region championships, also considered Wisconsin-Green Bay and went to camps at Texas A&M and other schools.
She's glad she picked the Mocs.
"The potential of this team is outstanding, when we put it together," Speth said. "I think we're being underrated."
Classmate Ashley Simmons from Chattanooga Christian agreed.
"I couldn't be happier with my decision, even though I made it kind of late," Simmons said. "I see great potential. The chemistry on the field is good. There are things we need to work on, but we just need to keep working hard and seize every opportunity."
While continuing to develop the offense, Kyzer has the luxury of two goalkeepers who between them have started the last three years: Mangrum from Franklin High, who missed last year with a knee injury, and 5-foot-10 Lauren Thomas from Germantown High, who handled the job as a freshman in 2012. But the coach said the main strength of this team is its team mentality.
"We don't have that unbelievable, fantastic player that does amazing things," he said, "but we're all together. I think better than we've been in the past, we work well together.
"We'll be together when we start a game, and we'll be together when we finish the game."
Contact Ron Bush at email@example.com or 423-757-6291.