Tennessee's women's soccer team begins a new season and a new era tonight with a bit of a chip on its shoulder.
The Lady Vols, picked to finish sixth in the SEC East Division in a preseason coaches' poll, open the 2012 season with a non-conference match against Samford at 7 p.m. at Regal Soccer Stadium.
Brian Pensky makes his debut as the Lady Vols' coach after spending the previous seven seasons as coach at Maryland, where he was named the 2010 Soccer America National Coach of the Year.
Pensky, hired by UT in January after Angela Kelly left for Texas, is well aware of the Lady Vols' spot in the coaches' poll.
"I think (the players) were all a little bit surprised by that, a little bit shocked, yet at the end of the day, that's just fine," Pensky said. "It's a coaches' poll. It's not a media poll. The other coaches in the league vote, and so the other coaches in the league don't think we're very good, and if they want to feel that way, that's OK.
"I think there's no question that it's innate that any human being would be inspired by someone thinking that they're not very good, and I'm sure that's going to inspire our group."
Count senior forward/midfielder Caroline Brown as a player inspired by the poll.
"If that's what they want to think about us, then we'll just come out and surprise them," Brown said. "It definitely motivates us, just wanting to show everybody else that we're better than that."
UT went 15-7 last season and tied for second in the SEC East with Florida with a 7-4 record. The Lady Vols lost nine players from the 2011 team (six seniors), including leading scorer Emily Dowd (12 goals, seven assists, 31 points).
Brown was second on the team in scoring (11 goals, eight assists, 30 points) and was chosen to the All-SEC second team with Dowd. Also returning
is sophomore keeper Julie Eckel, chosen to the All-SEC freshman team.
The No. 25-ranked Lady Vols were upset by unranked Ohio State 3-0 in the first round of the 2011 NCAA tournament at Regal Stadium. It was a bitter loss for the Lady Vols to take into the offseason — and more motivation for this season.
"We definitely weren't happy with the way our season ended last year," Brown said, "and we've had a lot of change since, but that's still inside of us for the ones who returned, that we've got to do better this time. I think we're definitely all thinking about that and how we're going to come out and work to try to do better than that."
Their first chance will be against Samford, which went 14-6-2 in 2011, won the Southern Conference with a 9-0-2 record and advanced to the NCAA tournament before losing 2-0 to Florida State, which reached the NCAA Final Four.
Eight starters return for Samford along with six other letter winners, including Brittany Hoffman, a former standout at Christian Academy of Knoxville.
Hoffman, a sophomore forward, was redshirted in 2010 and last season was selected to the Southern Conference's All-Freshman team.
"She's a good player," Pensky said of Hoffman. "She's a taller kid, and she's going to be a handful. I'm sure she's going to have some family and friends out here (tonight) supporting her, so we expect a very, very difficult game."
Samford set school records last season with a 10-match winning streak and a 14-match unbeaten streak.
Pensky has plenty of respect for the Lady Bulldogs.
"They're going to be a good team," Pensky said. "They're a tall team, very good in the air, they were 58 in the RPI last year, so we've got our hands full."
Dave Link is a freelance contributor.