Last year Arts & Sciences was one victory away from winning the first TSSAA district softball tournament for a program that has been around since the mid-1990s. And after beating Grace Academy, which had won the six previous district tournaments, in the winners-bracket final of the double-elimination format, the Lady Patriots had two chances, if needed, to capture that elusive title.
But 8-5 and 1-0 losses to the Lady Golden Eagles, who rebounded in the losers-bracket final and came back to win a seventh consecutive championship, left CSAS empty again.
Never mind that the Lady Patriots still moved on to region play. They had done that before as district runners-up.
This season marks the final chance for seven seniors -- all of them starters -- to help CSAS win a league title.
The District 5-A tournament gets under way Monday with higher-seeded teams hosting throughout. CSAS (17-9-1) will host Boyd-Buchanan at Warner Park at 6 p.m.
The Lady Patriots won their first district regular-season championship last year, but no trophy is associated with that.
"I'd love to do something for this school after all it has done for me," said Briana Taylor, a Lincoln Memorial University signee and the Lady Patriots' main pitcher. "A district title is something I'd feel good about and hopefully everybody else in the school would cherish it, too. We want to leave our mark, in a sense."
CSAS lost in the first round of the Region 3 tournament last year at Sale Creek, but the true haunting game from last season was that second loss to Grace in the district tournament. Taylor threw a three-hitter that day and the run scored when catcher Kiara Suttles, who has since signed with Southern University, made an errant pickoff throw to third base in the top of the seventh inning.
"That was last year," Suttles said. "For one, I'm a different catcher now. I'm a different person. I shouldn't have done it. Yes, I do think about it. But the way I am, I don't really think about it as motivation. I made that mistake last year."
Kaity Holloway was a first-year head coach last season after spending the previous year with the Lady Patriots as an assistant to her sister, Kristin. Holloway said she feels as though she let her players down last year, but like Suttles she feels she has grown in her capacity, too.
"These kids know they did great things last year," Holloway said. "They put up numbers this program has never seen before. Sometimes they kind of forget what they're capable of, and how great they really are."
Suttles, a four-year starter and a great power source throughout her prep career, admitted this year's team did not get off to the start it wanted, particularly offensively. But CSAS looked like a different team when it beat district co-champion Silverdale Baptist Academy 7-3 on April 21 than it did in losing 5-1 to the Lady Seahawks on April 3.
"We've taken it step by step," Suttles said. "District is coming up. We know we've got to be more focused in practice and in those serious moments before a game. We've been better since the beginning of the year."
Holloway said she believes the turning point came the weekend of April 11-12 in Baylor's Hits for Hope tournament, where out of 11 teams the Lady Patriots ended up runners-up to the host Lady Red Raiders.
"No, we didn't score a whole lot of runs," Holloway said, "but we did things we needed to do when we needed to do them."
Moving forward, much will be asked of Taylor in the pitching circle. By far she's logged more innings than any other Lady Patriot -- fellow senior Angela Petulla has handled some of the load -- but the right-hander said pitching is something she's done since she was 7 years old.
"I don't try to do too much," Taylor said. "I'm not always trying to make that perfect pitch. There are also people out there who field the ball, throw the ball and catch the ball."
Jamani Greer will be joining Suttles at Southern next season, and classmates Brittany Patmon and Gabi Queener are headed to play at Maryville College. Mercedes Benn is the team's other senior.
Coach Holloway expressed how much she'd love to see this class that has meant so much to the program go out in style. Their goals are far reaching. But according to Suttles' step-by-step blueprint, trying to win the district tournament is a high priority.
"Softball is a mental sport," Holloway said. "The team that's the toughest and has the most heart and the most desire, that's the one that's going to pull it out. Talent is only going to take you so far. That's what we've worked on. We've got talent. We've just got to combine the two. If we can do that, there's not anybody I wouldn't put us up against.
"We're not done yet. We'll see how we come out Monday. It depends how we play those days next week. That will determine our fate."
Contact Kelley Smiddie at email@example.com or 423-757-6653. Follow him at twitter.com/KelleySmiddie.
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.