The Vols' run to the 2001 College World Series looked to be the key to returning the program to among the nation's elite. But the 2002 season proved to be disappointing on many levels with a squad that was decimated by injuries. With new grass on the field and a host of newcomers to go along with returning veterns, Tennessee is poised to make a successful run in 2003.
Filling holes in the lineup from year-to-year is commonplace in the realm of college baseball. The 2003 Volunteers must once again find the right combination. Equipped with 13 letterwinners, three returning positional starters, six returning pitchers and nine players that have been previously drafted, Tennessee looks to have the correct chemistry in place to play at a championship level.
New pitching coach Fred Corral, who brings with him a wealth of experience at the collegiate and professional level, looks to revitalize a staff that has been hampered by injuries. With his influx of new ideas and plans, Corral is expected to make an immediate impact.
In addition, head coach Rod Delmonico saddled the responsiblity of leading the team on the field in the hands of captains Jordan Czarniecki, Javi Herrera, Ben Riley and Patrick Hicklen. Herrera and Hicklen were co-captains last season.
As always, Delmonico has a tough and demanding schedule for his teams. The 2003 slate is no different with a non-conference slate that boasts 10 teams that made NCAA Regional action in 2002 in addition to the ever-tough 30-game conference schedule.
But perhaps the biggest boost for this young team was a three-game exhibition series in Havana, Cuba that the team played in December. There, the Vols got to experiment with the lineup as well as getting a look at all the newcomers in game action.
The successful tour saw the pitching staff yield just one run in 27 innings while striking out 31 against just six walks and holding the Havana All-Stars to a .146 average.
Offensively, the Vols hit .240 with wooden bats and scored 15 runs with five doubles among their 23 hits.
One of the primary keys to any successful season is a solid pitching staff. With the influx of eight new pitchers, pitching coach Fred Corral was saddled with the tough chore of sorting through the arms to find the correct roles for the staff.
Returning to anchor the pitching staff is junior left hander and co-captain Ben Riley. He brings 15 career starts to the table, the most of any returning pitcher. He was also the only Vol to start every weekend in league action.
The Vols also trade one pitcher who recovered from "Tommy John" surgery for another who will miss the 2003 season with the surgery in right hander Brandon Crowe for right hander Patrick Hicklen, respectively.
Crowe, who went a perfect 6-0 with three saves and 3.68 ERA in 2001 as a reliever, will likely move into the starting rotation. A very competitive hurler, he earned Pitcher of the Week honors in 2001 after picking up a save and win against Florida.
Hicklen, a mainstay on the staff over the last two years with 10 wins, will take a medical redshirt year to rehabilitate his elbow.
Stepping up into the rotation is left hander Derek Tharpe who transfers to Tennessee after spending the last two seasons at Samford University in the Atlantic Sun Conference.
Also penciled in as a starter is true freshman right hander Luke Hochevar. At 6-foot-5, he is an imposing figure on the mound with an explosive fastball.
Hochevar turned down the Los Angeles Dodgers after being a 39th round pick in 2002, and stepped up to the front among the new pitchers during the fall.
Poised to lock up the closer's role is junior college transfer Steve Wesley from Brevard (Fla.) Community College. The right hander was the two-time Fireman of the Year among Florida Junior Colleges.
Figuring in at middle relief are juniors Dusty Johnson and Beau Massey. Johnson is a left hander who provides spot starting duty, while Massey is tough on both righties and lefties with his three-quarter to sidearm delivery.
Johnson, who was one of a number of injured Vols last season, delivered in the clutch as a freshman, picking up a win in the 2001 Super Regional. Now healthy, he is poised to make an impact.
Massey was the workhorse out of the pen last year, even appearing in five consecutive game. With increased velocity and an improved breaking ball, he looks to be a quality set-up man.
Two sophomore right handers will also be battling for time on the hill. Joey Andrews saw most of his action in long relief last year, while Rob Fitzgerald, who made two starts in SEC play, will also split time in the infield while looking for more innings.
Andrews has an improved breaking ball and could also work his way among the starters.
Two junior college transfers and three more incoming freshmen will look to make an impact as well. The junior college right handers Blake Crigger and Patrick Green, along with freshman left hander John Parscal, have been previously drafted in their careers.
Crigger and Green were teammates at Okaloosa-Walton (Fla.) Community College, while Parscal, along with Hochevar, become the second and third recruits from Colorado in the last two years.
Crigger was a relief pitcher who notched eight saves in 2001 while being drafted by Anaheim in 41st round. Green, who was a 28th round pick by the Florida Marlins in 2000 out of high school, posted the sixth-best ERA in Florida Community Colleges last year while seeing action at third base.
Parscal was draft-and-follow player after being selected by the San Diego Padres in the 49th round in 2002.
Eisemann is a two-way player from Sacramento City Community College who was limited due to injuries.
Drucker transferred from Florida in and must sit out the 2003 season. He went 3-0 with a 6.25 ERA in two seasons with the Gators.
Returning from an injury-plagued campaign is junior Javi Herrera who suffered a broken hamate bone as well as season-ending shoulder surgery. The third team Baseball America preseason All-America returns at full strength to guide a youthful pitching staff through the rigors of the conference slate.
Herrera, who is rated No. 59 by Baseball America among the top 100 collegiate players, looks to return to the form that earned him Freshman All-America honors and a place on the 2001 USA National Team. After spending the entire summer rehabilitating, he looks strong.
Proving to be capable reserves are junior transfer Jeremy Cabbage and sophomore Jeremy Kemp. Kemp redshirted in 2001 before serving a the bullpen catcher last season behind both Herrera and departed senior Hal Bibee Jr. Cabbage was an All-State catcher at Cleveland State Community College, batting .436. He could also work at first base.
Also figuring in the mix is outfielder Chad LeGate, who spent the past summer catching for North Ohio in the Great Lakes League.
Tennessee's middle infield could be one of the best in the conference with senior Walter Sevilla and junior transfer Brian Cleveland providing the anchors.
Sevilla moves from shortstop to second, while Cleveland, who led the California Community Colleges in batting in 2001, steps in as a slick fielder with a solid bat.
Sophomore Nick Crowe makes the move from second to third base for 2003.
Penciled at first base is freshman Kyle Norrid, but that could wind up being a platoon position as junior college transfer Brett Chappell, reserve catcher Jeremy Cabbage and reserve infielder Rob Fitzgerald could all get looks during the season.
True freshman Michael Rivera, who has great range, can play any of the four infield positions as can Fitzgerald.
Returning to anchor the outfield is senior center fielder Jordan Czarniecki who is not only exceptional with the leather, but looks to post even better numbers this season. Being the first Vol to win the team Triple Crown since Todd Helton in 1995, Czarniecki will provide veteran leadership on the team along with a being a captain.
Czarniecki finished the 2002 campaign strong by batting .484 in April and May, while posting a .402 average in conference play.
Others returning with experience include a pair of sophomores in Chad LeGate and Chris Heath. LeGate gained valuable experience with Northern Ohio in the Great Lakes Summer League, while Heath concentrated on football and earning playing time on the special teams.
Freshman Josh Alley, a scrappy player with a solid arm, will get the nod in left field.
Sophomore transfer Alex Suarez, who played at Florida International in 2002, will play right.
Also coming in with collegiate experience is junior college transfer Justin Branson who played for Walters (Tenn.) State, the 2002 state champions, and senior Jimbo Watson who played for Division II Francis Marion last year.
Figuring in the mix is freshman Todd Martin who brings a solid bat and good speed to challenge for action.
Tennessee's 2003 schedule is once again a demanding slate. The Vols play 23 games against teams ranked in the preseason polls. They will also play 10 teams that made NCAA Regional play last year, including College World Series runner-up South Carolina, a team the Vols will battle for the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division crown.
UT plays 18 of its first 24 games at home with series' against the likes of Miami, Louisville, South Carolina, West Virginia and Bowling Green State visiting Lindsey Nelson Stadium. Single game matchups against Big Ten foe Purdue and in-state rival Tennessee Tech also dot the early portion of the slate.
Tennessee plays 35 home games, with SEC rivals Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas coming to town. The Vols open conference play on the road at Auburn, and will travel to Florida, Kentucky, LSU and Vanderbilt as part of a rigorous league schedule.
UT will also play an exhibition against the Double-A Tennessee Smokies on April 30, in addition to home-and-home contests with Tennessee Tech, East Tennessee State and UNC Asheville.