Jan. 27, 2012
KNOXVILLE - A renewed sense of excitement and optimism filled the air at Lindsey Nelson Stadium on Friday as the Tennessee baseball team hit the field for its first official team practice of the spring under the direction of first-year head coach Dave Serrano and his staff.
"It's obviously exciting," Serrano said. "I'm hoping the players are as excited as this coaching staff is for the start of us writing the story of this season. I don't know how the story will end, but I know we will be able to control a lot of the chapters and a lot of the pages that are written. We have a lot of work to do, so every time we get on the field it is going to be important for us to maximize the time we have out here."
In addition to the traditional work on fundamental physical skills, much of the coaching staff's focus during spring practice will be on developing the mental side of this year's Volunteer squad.
"I want to continue to build our competitiveness as a team," Serrano said. "We want competitiveness and consistency in all areas. Continue to throw more strikes, continue to make routine plays, continue to put the ball in play and continue to put pressure on the defense. This coaching staff, as you will come to find out, will never be satisfied with anything. No matter if we play the perfect game, we won't be satisfied with that. We want to get better and I think the players understand that now."
With 18 newcomers on this year's team, the Vols will be looking to returning starters such as senior shortstop Zach Osborne and junior centerfielder Chris Fritts for leadership on and off the diamond. With just nine pitchers who combined for only 15 starts last season returning for the 2012 campaign, the Big Orange won't have quite that same luxury on the mound.
"Most of our experience that has had success is our position players that are returning. Early on, that could be the thing that carries us a little bit. We need to grow up and we need to grow up fast on the mound. We have enough potential there, but sometimes potential is a dangerous word. We don't want to just hear potential, we want to see results. We will only go as far as mentally tough and consistent as our pitching staff is. That is eventually going to have to be the strong point of this team. For years to come that is going to be what this program is built around: pitching and defense."
Tennessee will open the 2012 campaign Feb. 17-19 when it hosts a three-game set against Northern Illinois at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
KEEPING IT SIMPLE
The Vols understand that getting the Tennessee program back to the upper-echelon of college baseball is not going to be an overnight process. With that in mind, they have their sights set on a set of goals that have to come before the ultimate destination.
"Our goals are easy," Serrano said. "We want to maximize our ability as a baseball team. Whatever our expectations are as a team, we want to get to that level and beyond. There is no win total that I have set out as a goal. Obviously this program hasn't been to the SEC Tournament in a while, so that is a goal that I have in mind.
"To me when you take over a program and are kind of rebuilding in some ways, you set stepping stones and that is the first step. We can't talk about Omaha until we get to the SEC Tournament. To be able to play good enough baseball in what is going to be another challenging year in this conference and to get to the SEC Tournament in Hoover I think would be a great feat for this team after the last few years. "
In order to begin reaching those goals, the Vols must first believe that they are capable of doing so, something Serrano and his staff try to remind the players of each and every day.
"It starts with the belief that you can do it," Serrano said. "If you don't think you can do it is probably not going to happen. People can see us as a coaching staff as arrogant, but we aren't arrogant we are just confident. We are confident in our track history of what we have been able to accomplish at different places and our development. There is no reason I don't think that can happen here in what I feel is a very special place here in Knoxville, Tennessee."
POSITION SPOTLIGHT: CLOSER CANDIDATES
The closer, always one of the most critical positions on any pitching staff and one that takes a special type of pitcher both in terms of physical ability as well as mental.
With the start of the 2012 campaign still 21 days away, the Vols' top two candidates for the role are sophomore Nick Williams and junior Samuel Davis from Columbia State Community College. Both pitchers are right-handed, but that is about where the similarities end.
A sidearm pitcher, Davis pitches to contact and has the ability to routinely induce groundball outs. Williams, meanwhile, is more of a power arm that will miss a lot of bats and generate more strikeouts.
How his closer gets outs is of little significance to Serrano, however. He is looking for the pitcher with the mentality to best get the job done.
You can't have a fear of failure," Serrano said. "You have to have a short memory. You can't remember what just happened the day before you just have to go out there and live pitch to pitch."
The squad split into two teams for its first official intrasquad scrimmage of the spring on Friday. Providing the highlights for the scrimmage were a pair of juniors in right-handed pitcher Drew Steckenrider and centerfielder Chris Fritts.
On the mound, Steckenrider twirled four quality innings, allowing just one run on one hit while striking out two. He also put his offensive abilities on display, collecting a pair of RBIs on a double down the left-field line and stealing a base. Fritts, meanwhile, launched a two-run home run onto "The Porch" in left field.
Sophomore southpaw Dalton Saberhagen also posted a solid performance toward the end of the evening with a pair of shutout frames, helping his own cause on two occasions with two terrific defensive plays.
SEASON TICKETS ON SALE
Season tickets and 20-game flex plans for the upcoming Tennessee baseball season are now on sale.
While supplies last, any fan who purchases two reserved-seat season tickets will receive a baseball autographed by Tennessee head coach Dave Serrano. Those who purchase four reserved-seat season tickets will receive a jersey signed by the Vol skipper.
Purchase your season tickets now by logging on to www.UTTix.com or calling the ticket office at (865) 656-1200. Individual game tickets will go on sale Feb. 1.