On Aug. 13, the Southern Conference Council of Presidents announced that the league would not have fall conference sports competition due to health and safety concerns related to COVID-19, allowing for nonconference contests at each institution’s discretion. University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student-athletes impacted by this decision were members of the football, cross country, soccer and volleyball teams.
Although the situation remained fluid at press time, the conference continues to move fall sports’ regular-season competition and championships to spring 2021. Golf and tennis, UTC sports which traditionally have fall competition in advance of spring championships, proceeded with abbreviated fall seasons.
Golfer Beatriz Barios, photo by Michael Wade
On Oct. 21 the Southern Conference announced an eight-game conference schedule for spring. UTC will open its season at home Feb. 20 against Virginia Military Institute. League games will take place over 13 weeks leading up to the 16-team NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs, set to start in late-April.
In their lone nonconference game during the fall, the Mocs lost 13-10 at Western Kentucky on Oct. 24. The 13 points allowed by the UTC defense were the fewest surrendered to an FBS opponent since a 7-0 loss at Vanderbilt on Sept. 7, 1985.
The Chattanooga defense, led by senior Rashun Freeman, held WKU to 13 points and one touchdown.
Photo by Derek Daniel, UTC Athletics
Head coach Rusty Wright, a 1996 UTC graduate, in his second year leading the program guided the Mocs to a 6-6 record in 2019, including a 5-3 mark in conference play. Coming off a third-place conference finish, the Mocs were generating attention in late summer. They received 16 votes in the STATS FCS preseason Top 25 poll released Aug. 24. UTC also received votes in the HeroSports.com preseason Top 25 rankings.
Two seniors, tight end Chris James and offensive lineman Cole Strange, earned preseason notice. James was a presumptive second-team Stats Perform All-America selection and a third-team HeroSports.com All-America choice, while Strange was named to Phil Steele’s FCS preseason All-America fourth team.
UTC was one of nine NCAA Division I FCS programs—and the only Southern Conference institution—with four or more players on an NFL Opening Day 53-man roster. The former Mocs are cornerback Buster Skrine ‘10–Chicago Bears, wide receiver C.J. Board ‘16–New York Giants, linebacker Tae Davis ‘17–Cleveland Browns and defensive tackle Isaiah Mack ’18–Tennessee Titans. In addition, cornerback Kareem Orr ‘18—Titans and offensive lineman Corey Levin ‘16—New England Patriots opened the year on their teams’ practice squads; Orr was later promoted to the active roster.
Although fall conference action was postponed, the volleyball team won Sept. 12 in a five-set victory over Georgia State at Maclellan Gymnasium. UTC fought off five match points in the final set. Six freshmen saw action for head coach Travis Filar’s Mocs, including five starters—the most ever to start the first match of the season.
Freshman Paige Gallentine recorded a match-high 33 digs, the most in a true freshman’s debut in program history. Freshman Sophia Bossong dished out a match-high 67 assists, also a Mocs’ mark for a true debuting freshman. Seniors Bailey Bennett, Maddie Halsey and Megan Kaufman put on UTC uniforms for the last time as all three will graduate in December.
Paige Gallentine, photo by Mike Allison
Head coach Gavin McKinney’s squad, the 25th in Mocs history, was set to play an abbreviated one-game fall schedule Sept. 13 against Georgia State at the UTC Sports Complex. Like so many other proceedings, though, COVID-19 interceded at the last moment—and the match was canceled the day before it was to take place. When play resumes for UTC in the spring, the Mocs return 20 letterwinners and add six newcomers. The team has five seniors, seven juniors, nine sophomores and five freshmen.
Although cross country was initially canceled for fall, the conference announced Oct. 5 that men’s and women’s fall championships will be held Nov. 21 in Macon, Georgia. Three UTC student-athletes—Abby Bateman, Jonathan Boyd and Nathan Watson—were named to the 2020 CoSIDA academic all-district first team for their excellence in the classroom and competition. Bateman, a two-time academic All-American, graduated summa cum laude in May with a 4.0 GPA and a degree in marketing. She was an all-conference performer on the distance medley relay team. Boyd, a junior, carries a 4.0 GPA in electrical engineering. Watson graduated magna cum laude in May with a degree in chemical engineering. The women’s team posted a program-record 3.795 GPA for the 2019-2020 academic year—the second-highest GPA in the nation—and was named an all-academic team by the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.
The UTC men’s team, coached by Mark Guhne, had three fall events on its schedule, starting with the Scenic City Intercollegiate at the hallowed Honors Course in nearby Ooltewah, Tennessee. During the two-day tournament Sept. 21-22, UTC golfers finished fifth overall among the 10 schools competing. The University of Alabama at Birmingham won the event at The Honors, which played host to its first collegiate tournament since the 2010 NCAA Men’s Championships. Due to COVID-19, no spectators were allowed at the course.
Redshirt junior A.J. Lintunen had his first collegiate Top 5 finish, placing fifth among individuals with a 54-hole total of 220. Redshirt sophomore Dominic Jones shot 229 over the two days and tied for 18th overall, his best collegiate finish. The men’s fall slate also included winning the J.T. Poston Invitational in Lake Hartwell, Georgia, and the Intercollegiate at the Grove in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
Women’s golf coach Colette Murray has a young squad this year with three freshmen, two sophomores and a redshirt sophomore on the roster. In her 14th year at UTC, Murray has won five Southern Conference championships since arriving in Chattanooga. The team has an international roster with student-athletes coming to UTC from Spain, Serbia, England, Ireland, Poland and the Netherlands.
In their initial tournament of the fall, they finished seventh at the Hoover Invitational in Birmingham, Alabama, Sept. 21-22. Freshman Beatriz Barrios tied for 16th overall with a team-low 54-hole score of 222. Redshirt sophomore Rachel Thompson finished two strokes back, tying for 20th. UTC was set for three other out-of-town trips in fall, traveling to the Lady Red Wolves Classic in Jonesboro, Arkansas, the Terrier Intercollegiate in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and the Mercer Invitational in Macon, Georgia.
The UTC men’s tennis team, coached by Chuck Merzbacher, participated in four fall tournaments, starting with the Dale Short Shootout Oct. 2-4 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Other fall action included the Buck Bouldin Battle of the Boro in Murfreesboro, the Steve Baras Fall Classic at the UTC Tennis Center and the Southern Miss Invite in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The team had a program-record eight individuals earn 2019-2020 Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) scholar-athlete recognition.
The UTC women’s tennis team participated in a four-team invitational Sept. 18-19 in Conway, Arkansas, against host Central Arkansas, Missouri State and Louisiana Monroe. They finished the weekend with a 12-7 record in singles play and a 6-3 mark in doubles action. Due to the COVID-19 waiver that allowed 2019-2020 spring sports participants to keep their year of eligibility, head coach Chad Camper does not have a senior on the roster for the second year in a row. There also are no true freshmen; still, all eight players return with collegiate experience. The schedule also included the Mercer Invite in Macon, Georgia, and the UTC Invite at the UTC Tennis Center.
Endeavoring to Build on Last Year’s Success
Basketball is back, hopefully. Planning and practices for both UTC teams in full swing.
As fall practice began at McKenzie Arena, both the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men’s and women’s basketball teams were faced with plenty of questions heading into the 2020-2021 season due the ongoing pandemic in the U.S. Would there be a 2020 portion of the 2020-2021 campaign? Would the season start on time, include non-conference foes, or be limited only to a Southern Conference slate? Would fans be in the stands? If yes, how many fans would be allowed to attend? And, a really big question for both UTC coaches: Who will replace the leading scorer on each squad?
The NCAA Division I Council announced in mid-September that the 2020-2021 men’s and women’s college basketball seasons can start Nov. 25.
Mocs Men’s Team
The UTC men’s team went 20-13 last season for the program’s first 20-victory campaign since 2015-2016. It was a tremendous jump forward for the Mocs as the team had only 22 combined wins over the previous two seasons. This year, Lamont Paris enters his fourth season as head coach looking to keep the momentum going despite losing four starters, including his top two scorers—graduate student Matt Ryan and Ramon Vila, who signed a professional contract to play basketball in Spain.
The lone returning starter, redshirt senior David Jean-Baptiste, will be building on a season in which he averaged 12.6 points per game, third-highest total on the squad. The 6-foot-1 guard is expected to help mentor a pair of 6-foot-3 backcourt mates in junior Trey Doomes and redshirt sophomore Malachi Smith. Doomes, a transfer from West Virginia University, appeared in 29 games off the bench for the Mocs last season and saw increased playing time as the season progressed. Smith, who began his collegiate career at Wright State, figures to see a lot of playing time at point guard after practicing at that position last season while redshirting. Two others in the guard mix expected to vie for playing time are a 6-foot-4 redshirt junior A.J. Caldwell and Grant Ledford, a 6-foot-6 sophomore.
The Mocs’ frontcourt will be significantly enhanced size-wise, thanks to the arrivals of transfers Josh Ayeni and Mark Tikhonenko. Ayeni, a 6-foot-8 graduate student from Zaria, Nigeria, comes to UTC after previous stops at St. Bonaventure and South Alabama. Ayeni has appeared in 64 games at the collegiate level, including 40 starts, while playing for a pair of teams that advanced to the NCAA Tournament.
Tikhonenko, a 6-foot-10 redshirt junior, was ruled eligible to play by the NCAA in early September after transferring from Sam Houston State, where he played in 31 games last season. Tikhonenko, a native of Moscow, Russia, comes from a strong basketball lineage; his father, Valeri, won a 1988 Olympic gold medal while playing for the USSR, while his mother, Victoria, was a national team player for the Kazakhstan U20 squad.
Mocs Women’s Team
Katie Burrows, a former UTC basketball player, will build on last year’s energenic squad as she begins her third season at the helm. UTC started the 2019-2020 season by going 1-13 in non-conference play before rallying to go 10-4 in SoCon action. The Mocs earned a national postseason berth, only to see a trip to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT) wiped out due to the arrival of COVID-19. For the first time since taking the reins, Burrows will be without Lakelyn Bouldin—one of the most prolific scorers in Mocs history. Bouldin, a three-time all-conference selection, finished her career eighth on the school’s all-time scoring list.
To replace Bouldin’s shooting prowess, significant contributions are anticipated from senior Bria Dial and juniors Eboni Williams and Abbey Cornelius. Dial, a 6-foot guard/forward, was one of the team’s most improved players last year, averaging 10.4 points per game. Her season highlights included hitting a three-point shot at the buzzer in a critical road conference victory at Wofford and going a perfect 7-for-7 from the floor as part of a 23-point affair (also against Wofford). Williams, the team’s freshman of the year two seasons ago, built on her rookie success by averaging 10.0 points and a team-high 8.0 rebounds per game in 2019-2020.
Cornelius, a 6-foot-2 forward, averaged 9.2 points and 6.6 rebounds in her first season as a starter. She is a graduate of Hardin Valley Academy in Knoxville, where she played for former UTC basketball player Jennifer Wilson Galloway—a collegiate teammate of Burrows.
Morgan Hill and Brooke Hampel, a pair of 5-foot-10 redshirt sophomore guards, are two to watch. Hill saw action in 27 games as a freshman in 2018-2019 before being limited to just three contests last year due to injuries—necessitating a redshirt campaign. Hampel started 22 games for Missouri-Kansas City two years ago, averaging 9.3 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, before transferring to UTC. She spent last season practicing with the Mocs, learning the offense and defense and getting comfortable with the program.