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February 17, 2012

Vols get win, Serrano gets game ball

All it took for Drew Steckenrider to get comfortable, to resemble the five-tool player that made him such a coveted prospect, in Tennessee's season-opener Friday at Lindsey Nelson Stadium was to get beaned in his first at-bat.

By then, Steckenrider already had retired Northern Illinois' final three batters of the opening inning, and Steckenrider had just missed a towering homer the pitch before. With the plunking, the nerves were instantly gone.

A couple hours later, Steckenrider and his Tennessee teammates handed out a different ball: a game ball to head coach Dave Serrano after his debut, a 7-1 Vols' win.

"You know, we really brought it up after in the locker room for the team meeting. Of course, we wanted to give (Serrano) the game ball," said Steckenrider, who earned the mound win with four innings of two-hit ball and capped UT's scoring with a solo blast to right in the eighth. "His first win here. Many more to come for coach Serrano.

"Just all the work he's put in with us, with every guy individually, he's a special coach and you can't really take that away from him. I just appreciate everything that he's done for me and with me over the course of the offseason leading into this season and up to opening day."

Serrano said this opener, his eighth as a head coach and before a Tennessee school-record opening-day crowd of 2,812, commanded a special place. He clutched the game ball during post-game interviews and beamed with his family nearby in the dugout.

"I just got done telling the team, I've been in a lot of openers, obviously, as a head coach," Serrano said. "I told my wife Tracy this this morning, this was the most excited I've been. And a lot of it had to do with the players in there and what they've had to overcome, some of their tough times. …

"This was special. This win was special for them. This wasn't just about me. This was for them and what we're trying to do each and every day to become a better team."

The Vols (1-0), who will host the Huskies Saturday beginning at noon for a doubleheader, showed an ability to both manufacture runs and strike, perhaps a bit surprisingly, via the long ball as well. Tennessee led 2-0 at the game's midpoint, having scored in its first at-bat on a balk and RBI-groundout from senior outfielder Chris Pierce.

Freshman Jared Allen's RBI-double pushed UT to a 3-0 lead in the fifth, and Pierce polished off his four-RBI evening with a three-run home run in the sixth. Left-hander Tom Barry was tagged with the loss after he allowed six earned runs on five hits and three walks across six innings.

"It's always nice to get the first one and get coach his first win here at Tennessee," Pierce said. "Steck hit a couple of balls great, and I hit that one, was able to get a good piece on one. It's always nice when you can hit a couple of bombs. That's not going to be our game plan, but it's always nice when you can get a couple of bombs like that."

For Steckenrider's power at the plate --- he also had a smashing double to the deepest portion of the left-center field gap --- he was equally brilliant on the bump. He retired nine of the final 10 batters he faced, working a prescribed four innings and throwing 31 of 47 pitches for strikes.

"I was proud of him; for him to be able to do those types of things it's going to make it a lot easier for us to be successful," Serrano said. "I say this again: there's no player more important than any other player, but with some of his abilities it's going to help us become more successful consistently."

Steckenrider gave way to a pair of freshmen, Robbie Kidd and Conner Stevens, respectively. They worked the final five innings, scattering three hits. Stevens issued a bases-loaded walk to Alex Jones but then escaped further trouble when he induced an inning-ending double play.

With rain forecast for Sunday, the Vols will wrap up their opening three-game set Saturday beginning at 12 p.m. Zach Godley will take the mound for UT in the first game while Nick Blount gets the nod in the finale.


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