Dave Serrano is happy that his Tennessee baseball team is 7-0.
Tennessee celebrates Sundays' 4-2, series-sweeping win over then-29th-ranked UNLV in Lindsey Nelson Stadium. (UT photo)
The third-year coach is happier about the way his Vols are playing, though.
One day after capping a three-game sweep of then-29th-ranked UNLV in Lindsey Nelson Stadium, Serrano spoke to reporters as the head coach of the team ranked No. 28 in this week’s Collegiate Baseball Poll.
The Vols hadn’t been in the Collegiate Baseball poll since mid-April 2008, and they surfaced at No. 30 for only one week before losing a couple of games the following weekend and falling out.
Serrano doesn’t expect this to be a cameo appearance, though. The coach said he’s seen enough good baseball to know it when he sees it, and he’s seen that potential with this team since fall workouts.
And he said that’s why he never second-guessed himself before the season, when he said this team would be good.
Serrano once started a season at perennial powerhouse Cal State Fullerton by practicing at midnight and telling everyone that the Titans would be the first college team on the field and the last one standing at the end of the season. And he almost called his shot. CSF advanced to the College World Series but didn’t win it.
“I like living on the edge a little bit. I'm not afraid to stick my neck out there,” Serrano said. “I know what I was brought here to do, and my coaching staff, to collect the right kind of players. I also wanted our players to know that I was standing up for them, that we were finally a product that we could be excited about, and they needed to hear that from their so-called leader, that I believed in them. It's almost like a parent when you look at your son or daughter and you tell them they could do something, whether it's in school or athletics. I wanted them to hear that. I wasn't trying to brainwash them because I felt they believed it, too. They were working out with those guys every day. They were at practice with those guys every day and they saw the collection of players of how the growth process from last year, the freshmen to sophomores, the freshmen that came in this year that are ready to play maturity wise and mentally. So they saw it, too.
“You know, I was kind of tooting their horn a little bit so they knew that I was behind them 100 percent.”
Vols' Vincent Jackson (UT photo)
That confidence was even bolder behind the scenes, as Serrano admitted during his Monday press conference.
“Before we started that (opening) game against Purdue, ...we were in the coaches' room and I said to my staff, ‘I don't know if we realize how good we can end up being.' A lot of things had to start coming together, and they're still going to have to come together. I said, ‘I feel like we're sitting on a volcano that's about to explode.’ I mean, the whole big picture. It's what I'm starting to see. The way the team is playing. Let's take aside the 7-0. Even if we were 5-2 right now, the way our team is playing baseball, the way they're showing up every day with positive energy, with passion to be good, and playing for each other, I’d be very happy.
“Fortunately for us, we've won every game. But I'd still be happy if our record wasn't an undefeated record.”
The Vols (7-0) have backed up their coach’s confidence to this point, sweeping the Runnin’ Rebels despite going into the weekend without their opening day starting pitcher in freshman Hunter Martin and one of their top bullpen arms in junior-college transfer Bret Marks. Both sat out the weekend with shoulder stiffness and only Marks looks potentially set to return for this weekend’s three-game home series against Quinnipiac.
"We're going to go through some stretches of tough times,” Serrano said. “I think we've already hit some stretches of tough times, and we've been able to overcome those. I'm not so sure, that in the past, that some of the games that we encountered this weekend (against UNLV) we would've held on or better yet won in the past.
“A lot of that might have had to do with confidence; a lot of that might have had to do with lack of ability, not being able to do that yet.”
But those days are done, according to the Vols coach.
Tennessee also deal with a tough outing from highly touted freshman starting pitcher Kyle Serrano — Dave’s son — against UNLV, but the Vols have gotten better-than-some-expected starts from senior Nick Williams, sophomore Andy Cox and sophomore Andrew Lee, who have performed well enough to give the team at least four or five (when Martin returns) potential quality starters heading into weekends of three-game series.
Vols' Christin Stewart (UT photo)
In addition to proven veterans such as senior right fielder Scott Price, junior second baseman Will Maddox and sophomore outfielders Christin Stewart and Vincent Jackson, the Vols have gotten immediate boosts from several highly touted freshmen — a list headlined to this point by designated hitter Nick Senzel and big first baseman Nathaniel Maggio. They’ve also gotten improved performances from gifted sophomore shortstop A.J. Simcox, sophomore catcher David Houser and senior third baseman Taylor Smart.
Dave Serrano said the Vols have a lot more weapons they haven’t shown to this point, and he hopes to work more of those “quality” rotation players into the mix this weekend.
“We're doing things right. I saw that in the fall,” the coach said. “I knew the talent base was starting to get where it needs to be for the SEC. That's what allowed me to make that kind of confidence, that kind of a comment. I really feel it. I think our players feel it. We're 7-0, and we're proud of that. But like I keep reiterating to them, we haven't done anything. We started 7-0 my first year, too. I think we were kind of scratching our heads, to be honest, at that time thinking, ‘How is this happening?' And it kind of ended up what we anticipated a little bit.
“But I think this team has a lot of room for growth still. We can get better in areas. There were some things that came out this weekend that we'll have to go back and improve on this week. I saw (Voice of Vols baseball) John Wilkerson tweeted out, I didn't realize it at the time, but to win seven games in eight days is pretty taxing to open up the season like that. The energy level yesterday when we gathered as a team at 9 a.m. for team breakfast and then had chapel after that, it was amazing. Taking it to the field for batting practice, it wasn't like a team that was 6-0, it wasn't like a team that was getting ready to play its seventh game in eight days. That's what I'm feeding off of.
“Confidence can do a lot for individuals and teams.”
It’ll take more than confidence to get where Tennessee wants to be, though. And Dave Serrano said he and his team are well aware of that.
Need a quick reminder of the SEC’s baseball dominance? Just consider this: Tennessee is ranked No. 28 nationally this week, and No. 9 in the SEC.
Dave Serrano said before the season that his team would compete well in the nation’s top conference, though, and he hasn’t seen a single reason to take back those comments.
"I think it's a little bit of everything,” the coach said. “If you go back, there hasn't been one name that keeps popping up as the guy of the game, the guy that really helped the team. It's been a lot of different names. I wouldn't want it any other way. Those sometimes end up being the best teams. There's not one guy this team is relying on for success. It's a different guy every day. It's different guys at different stages.
“Those are the kinds of things that are happening that are special.”
Contact Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247