CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) -- Walking into the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga indoor hitting facility is often like going back in time for Michelle Fuzzard.
The Lady Mocs' leader in doubles, home runs and RBI this season also leads the roster in a very unique category: appearances in team photos.
"I look around at these team pictures on the walls in this place and it's like I can see my journey," the fifth-year senior said with a smile before the start of the season two weeks ago. "It's funny looking at the old ones when I was a fresh-faced newcomer. I've been here since the fall of 2007, so it really seems like a long time."
It seems that way to her teammates, too, as Chattanooga (4-4) prepares to open its home schedule Friday morning with the annual 12-team Frost Classic.
On a roster with only six upperclassmen, including just three seniors, the younger players have plenty of fun with her "old-timer" ways.
"We call her 'Grandma Fuzz.' She's the mama around here. We look to her for everything," said junior infielder Sara Poteat. "The stadium over there is called the 'Field of 1,000 Dreams,' but we call it the 'Field of Michelle Fuzzard's Dreams.'"
The reality is Fuzzard experienced every athlete's nightmare when she tore her ACL early in 2010 and missed the entire season.
However, that extra year of eligibility granted through a medical redshirt turned out to be a dream come true for head coach Frank Reed.
"Losing six starters this year, had Michelle graduated on time we would have lost seven, and a big impact player for us as well. So it's pretty cool that she gets to come back," Reed said.
And the Lady Mocs have certainly needed her.
Fuzzard was already penciled in as UTC's top pitcher entering the season, but she grew even more important when Jenny Garcia was shelved for the year with an injury and another pitcher was dismissed from the team.
Suddenly a four-deep rotation was left with just Fuzzard and true freshman Taylor Deason to step into the circle.
"I told her when (her injury) happened that one day we'd look back on her getting injured and think about how it was a good thing," Reed said. "She learned a lot sitting out that year, so now it's like she's another coach on the field for us. We're glad to have her back."
Fuzzard is most happy to be back at full health.
She said she is at 100-percent nearly two years removed from knee surgery, though that doesn't keep her away from the training room.
"I frequent the training room, so I get picked on a lot for that," Fuzzard said sheepishly. "It's never a serious injury or anything. It's just something new and different every day."
She still wears a knee brace on the field, but admitted its more for comfort than for any real concern.
That comfort has shown through UTC's first eight games, in which Fuzzard is hitting .450 with three home runs and 13 RBI.
"The start of this year is definitely different than last year because I had no idea how my body would react to being back on the field again," she said. "This year I have a lot more confidence in my abilities, that's for sure."
Opposing coaches didn't share that confidence in Fuzzard's abilities to start the year.
While she was recently named the Southern Conference Player of the Week for her three-game performance at the Georgia State Panther Invitational, the reigning SoCon Player of the Year received only a second-team all-SoCon preseason nod.
"Last year's postseason player of the year is not this year's preseason player of the year. I'm still trying to figure that out," Reed said.
While Fuzzard noticed the snub, she already seems to have shrugged it off.
"I didn't need any more motivation to play my heart out this year, being my senior year," she said. "I guess it's a good thing those preseason things don't mean anything."
Apparently being the league-leader in "team picture appearances" doesn't pull much weight these days.
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