Dave Serrano’s fourth season on Rocky Top begins in a month, and things are looking up for the program. After reaching the SEC Tournament last season for the first time since 2007, Tennessee has their sights set on the NCAA Tournament and Omaha in 2015. Tennessee began last season with the best start in program history, winning twelve straight. They ended up finishing with an overall 31-23 record and posted a 12-18 record in conference play. That earned them the #11 seed in the SEC tournament, where they were eliminated in the first round by Vanderbilt.
Coach Serrano is focusing on recruiting and it is beginning to show results, with this season's freshman class rated #13 by Perfect Game. It is Serrano's third straight top 20 class at Tennessee. Highlighting the 13 new players on campus is Benny Santiago, son of great Padres Catcher Benito Santiago. The graduation of last year’s Senior Class signals the end of of Todd Raleigh’s tumultuous four-year regime, with every player now on campus recruited by Dave Serrano.
The Vols have some major holes to fill from last season’s lineup, losing three every day players, a weekend starter, and some experienced pitchers in the bullpen. The biggest spot to fill will fall to Nick Senzel, who was named to the SEC All-Freshman team after last season at the designated hitter spot. He will be taking over at second base for Will Maddox. Maddox was one of the most important members of the team last year, and his decision to sign with the Detroit Tigers has left a large gap in the middle of the infield.
Even with the losses, Tennessee does return quite a bit of talent and experience, with preseason All-American Christin Stewart in left field, A.J. Simcox at shortstop where he started 52 games last year, and Senzel at second. Derek Lance and Jeff Moberg will probably both get starts at third base, with Serrano saying that Lance is "going to be somewhere every day, wherever that is."
On the mound, Tennessee is returning players who combined for 41 starts last season, and 68.8% of the innings pitched. Andy Cox, Hunter Martin, and Kyle Serrano all are poised to pick up where they left off last season, where they combined for 12 wins and 3 saves. Cox was easily the best pitcher on Tennessee's staff last year, but was shut down in the offseason due to some issues with his arm. Bret Marks also returns, and although he only pitched 14 innings last season he earned 3 wins in those innings. He was also highest rated pitcher in fall ball according to Dave Serrano, and will probably have a large role this season. Joining the returning players with a chance to contribute are JUCO transfer Steven Kane and a collection of talented freshmen (Zach Warren and Jacob Westphal are two to key your eye on).
A little over two months ago, Tennessee hosted Austin Peay for a fall scrimmage. The pitchers stole the show with Bret Marks, Drake Owenby, and Kyle Serrano each tossing two innings, with the only hit given up between them belonging to Serrano. Stewart and Moberg both went 2-4 and Stewart, Simcox, and Andrew Lee (2) all recorded RBIs, which helped Tennessee to a 4-2 victory. Lee also got credit for the save.
The Vols will look to continue their pitching success as the season opens February 13th in Miami, Florida for a three game series against Florida International University. FIU finished tied for sixth in Conference USA last season, ending the season with a 36-20 overall record. They are one of thirteen teams that Tennessee will face that received votes in Collegiate Baseball Newspaper’s preseason poll.
Tennessee is sixth of seven SEC schools on Collegiate Baseball Newspaper’s top 40 preseason poll, ranked at #33, behind Vanderbilt (1), LSU (4), Florida (6), Mississippi State (20), South Carolina (21) and ahead of Arkansas (36). Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas A&M also received votes in the poll.
31 of the 55 games that Tennessee will play this season will take place at home in Lindsey Nelson Stadium, and only ten games will be against competition that did not play in either their conference tournament or the NCAA tournament last season (Grand Canyon, who makes up three of those, finished second in the WAC but were ineligible for their tournament due to a move from Division II to Division I). Nine teams the Vols take on made the NCAA tournament, with three making the College World Series: reigning CWS champions Vanderbilt, Ole Miss (who lost in the semi-finals), and UC Irvine (who lost in the 2nd round).
Before the season begins we will take a more in depth look at Tennessee's roster, as well as the opponents coming up in the non-conference half of the season.