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VOL. 9 | NO. 6 | Saturday, February 6, 2016

Confident Serrano Playing for Future at UT

By Dave Link | Special to The Memphis News

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Tennessee baseball coach Dave Serrano wasn’t setting the bar too high when he met with the media for his 2016 preseason press conference.

Serrano made that mistake before the 2015 season with talk of reaching an NCAA regional and perhaps Omaha, Nebraska, site of the College World Series.

The Vols fell short again in Serrano’s fourth season at UT, finishing 24-26, barely reaching the SEC tournament with a 12th-place finish and missing the NCAA tournament for the 10th consecutive year.

Tennessee Head Coach Dave Serrano failed to meet expectations last year when he talked about making it to the College World Series, which the Vols did not do and have not done since 2005. His team earned a spot in the SEC tournament in 2015 but was quickly eliminated.

(Andrew Bruckse/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com)

Serrano, who coached UC-Irvine (2007) and Cal State Fullerton (2009) to the College World Series, is in the final year of his contract at Tennessee and appears to be coaching for his job.

If there’s added pressure, Serrano isn’t saying so.

“I don’t feel any pressure at all,” Serrano explains. “I’m working in the greatest university I could be at. I have no regrets where I’m at, and I have no pressure at all because there’s only so much I can control, and I can control guiding this team and the young men that we have in this program to better things.

“So if that’s all I can control, I’m not going to worry about anything else. I’m proud to wear the uniform. I’m proud to be part of this university, and my goal is to end my career at this university.”

Tennessee’s baseball program has fallen on hard times since 2005 when the Vols reached the College World Series under head coach Rod Delmonico. UT hasn’t been back to the CWS since.

Delmonico was fired after the 2007 season when the Vols went 1-2 in the SEC tournament.

Tennessee didn’t reach the SEC tournament in the four years Todd Raleigh was head coach (2008-11) or the first two years under Serrano.

In 2014, the Vols went 31-23, were fifth in the SEC East (12-18) and lost in the opener of the SEC tournament.

Last year was another setback. The Vols got into the SEC tournament by sweeping Mississippi State (and getting some help) in the final weekend of the regular season to claim the 12th and last spot. UT was one and done again in the SEC.

Serrano used part of fall practices focusing on team-building exercises including work with The Program, a group of former military members who teach leadership building.

“I think that was something I’ll look back and really be happy that we did,” Serrano says. “It brought a unity and toughness to us, something that I think maybe we have lacked in the past. I don’t feel there’s any entitlement with this group.”

Tennessee lost four would-be seniors to the 2015 MBL Draft: pitcher/DH Andrew Lee, outfielder Christin Stewart, pitcher Drake Owenby, and shortstop A.J. Simcox. Pitcher Bret Marks also was drafted after his senior year.

Right-hander Andy Cox was drafted in the 37th round by the Oakland Athletics but returned for his senior season at Tennessee.

Leading hitter/infielder Nick Senzel is back for his junior year and is a potential first-round MLB pick. Senzel, who played at Farragut High School, hit .325 in 2015 with 28 RBI, but the Vols have only one other returning player, junior Jordan Rodgers (.278, 12 RBIs), who had more than 10 RBIs last season.

“I think guys have come in this year and realized there were a lot of spots open,” Serrano says, “and that’s allowed guys to show up every day to work whether it’s when we’re scheduled to go to work or practice or early because they want to do everything they can to earn that spot they see open.”

Here are five things to consider as the Vols’ prepare for their season opener Feb. 19 against Memphis in Chattanooga.

Is Dobbs for Real?

Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs created a buzz in January by working out with the Vols’ baseball team.

Dobbs, a junior, was an all-region pitcher and infielder at Alpharetta (Ga.) High School and a Division I prospect, before choosing to play football in college.

Before starting his preseason press conference, Serrano addressed the Dobbs issue.

“Yes, it is true, Josh Dobbs has been working out with our guys,” Serrano points out. “He’s a fabulous young man. I’ve known Josh since he’s been here. He has a baseball background coming out of high school.

“I truly understand where his commitment lies to this university, and (football) Coach (Butch) Jones and myself and Josh have been in constant communication about any affiliation that he may or may not have with this program, and that’s where I’m going to leave that for now.”

Serrano then was pressed on Dobbs’ status with the team. He’s not listed on the baseball team’s official roster on UT’s web site.

“Josh Dobbs has worked out two times with our team,” Serrano says. “It’s been very minimal. He’s actually under the weather right now. That’s what it is. He’s working out under the supervision of this coaching staff and with the blessing of Coach Jones that he’d be able to do it.”

Asked again if Dobbs is serious about playing baseball, Serrano repeated his stance.

“I want to talk about this team. I love Josh Dobbs, but I want to talk about this team because I think it’s unfair for the 34 other guys that have worn this uniform or have worked out in this uniform that have made a strong commitment to this program and what our goals are this year, I think it’s unfair to them.”

Tennessee begins spring football practice March 7 and the annual Orange and White Game is 2 p.m. on April 16 at Neyland Stadium.

Dobbs wouldn’t be the first UT quarterback to play baseball for the Vols. Condredge Holloway was Tennessee’s starting quarterback for three seasons (1972-74) and was an All-SEC and All-America shortstop in 1975.

Alan Cockrell started two years at quarterback (1982-83) and was an All-America outfielder in 1984.

Todd Helton was Heath Shuler’s backup for two years, and in 1994 started for three games before an injury handed the job to freshman Peyton Manning. He appeared in 12 games for the Vols football team, then went on to play 17 seasons of baseball with the Colorado Rockies.

Strategy Change?

Serrano’s longtime assistant coach, Greg Bergeron, resigned after the 2015 season and was replaced by Larry Simcox, former UT assistant from 1991-2007.

Simcox, who also runs Knoxville’s Diamond Baseball/Simcox Academy, holds the duties of hitting instructor, infielder coach, and third base coach for the Vols, who were 12th in the SEC in team batting average (.262) last year.

Simcox’s hiring appears to signal a shift from the “small ball” tactics of Bergeron to a more aggressive style of driving the baseball.

“I know there’s different ways to skin the cat, so to speak,” Serrano explains.

“We have made some changes in regards to our development process and maybe philosophy, but it’s not like someone’s going to come and say, ‘Boy, that’s a whole different program they’re running now.’ I’ve been taught a certain way. We’ve made some changes. I think the changes are for the good in regards to some philosophy. Now let’s see how it plays out with the team.”

Can Seniors Step Up?

Tennessee has eight seniors on the roster, the most for the program in at least 10 years, and perhaps the most ever for a Serrano-coached team.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had eight seniors on a roster,” Serrano says.

UT’s seniors other than Cox are infielder Jared Pruett of Dallas, Texas/Three Rivers Community College; outfielder Chris Hall of Lebanon, Tenn./Cumberland University; infielder Jeff Moberg of Vista Murrieta (Calif.) High School; catcher Tyler Schultz of Huntington Beach, Calif./Cypress Community College; infielder/outfielder Derek Lance of Knoxville Bearden High; pitcher Steven Kane of Huntington Beach, Calif./Cypress Community College; and outfielder Vincent Jackson of Luella High in McDonough, Ga.

Serrano says all eight could play significant roles.

“When I say eight seniors, that’s not just eight guys that are going to graduate at the end of the year,” Serrano explains. “I’m talking about guys that are going make contributions to this team, and that’s a big difference. When you have eight guys that are seniors that may not make contributions, sometimes that can cause problems in the clubhouse, but we’ve got guys that are going to play pivotal roles on this team.”

How’s the Pitching?

Serrano notes this is the best pitching staff he’s had at Tennessee, and it starts with six pitchers vying for the three spots as weekend starters for the SEC season.

Cox, a left-hander from St. Benedict School in Bartlett, Tenn., is the only senior of those six. Last season, Cox went 3-3 with a 3.36 ERA, but has been hampered by injuries during his UT career.

“Andy Cox’s success is pretty obvious,” Serrano points out. “It’s just a matter of keeping him healthy.”

UT’s other potential starters (with 2015 stats) are sophomore left-hander Zach Warren (2-0, 5.09 ERA) of Vineland, N.J., St. Augustine Prep; junior right-hander Kyle Serrano (5-4, 4.47) of Farragut High; junior right-hander Hunter Martin (1-3, 5.35) of Murfreesboro Blackman High; Kane (2-1, 4.64); and sophomore Eric Freeman (0-0, 9.00) of Farragut High.

Freeman, who had Tommy John surgery during his senior year at Farragut, threw only one inning last year, but was one of the Vols top pitchers in the fall.

Martin was 4-4 with a 3.25 ERA as a freshman and will compete with Serrano, the coach’s son, for the No. 1 starter’s job.

“They both want to be Friday guys, and I want them both to be Friday guys,” Dave Serrano adds. “Most likely one will be a Friday guy and the other will be a Saturday guy. That’s a good problem to have.”

Dave Serrano says he has more options than previous seasons at UT.

“No doubt about it this is probably the deepest, on paper, pitching staff that we’ve had,” Serrano says. “We have great right and left combinations. I feel like we’re going to be able to run a pitching staff that has four true starters, have three or four guys at the end of the game end up being the closer, setup guys, all that, and guys who are developing right now that could end up pushing guys toward the end of the year.”

Who Helps Senzel?

Tennessee might have its best pitching staff under Serrano, but there are plenty of questions about the batting order and field positions to be answered.

Tennessee second baseman Nick Senzel, a junior out of Farragut, is being touted as a possible first round pick in this year’s major league draft after batting .325 with 28 RBI last season.

(Tony Farlow/Four Seam Images via AP Images)

“Nick Senzel is one of the best players in the country and he’ll be in the middle of our lineup each day,” Serrano explains. “Now it’s finding the pieces to put around Nick to protect Nick.”

Jackson, who has 102 career starts at UT, is a candidate. He hit .321 in 23 games last season, his best as a Vol. He hit .290 in 43 games as a freshman and hit .234 in 49 games as a sophomore.

Serrano would like to see Lance flourish in his final year at UT He’s been a spot starter in his three seasons with the Vols. Lance’s best season was 2014 when he played in 32 games with 21 starts and hit .291 with 17 RBIs.

“I think for us to be successful, it can’t just be all about Nick, and that’s not coming from Nick, that’s coming from me,” Serrano says.

“Nick can’t win or lose every game for us. We’re going to need contributions from many other people that will allow (Senzel) to be successful and allow our team to be successful.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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