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February 14, 2013

Diamond Vols ready for first pitch

Dave Serrano started his Tennessee baseball media day press conference by joking about the struggle of learning the names' of 21 new players that help comprise his 32-man roster.

He ended it by telling about a chant - "WE, UT" - that his players have adopted and run with in the months leading up to Friday's season-opener at UNLV.

Nine states are represented on the 2013 Diamond Vols depth chart, which features 18 freshmen and just two seniors.

But as the chant suggests, bonding has not been a problem for the Big Orange, who are vying to make their first postseason appearance since 2007.

Pound The Zone

Nine of the freshmen are pitchers, but the Vols do return a trio of veterans that accounted for 12 of the team's 24 wins on the mound in 2012.

Zach Godley is one the team's two seniors and will begin 2013 as the Friday night starter for the Vols.

He will be reinforced out of the bullpen by crafty left-hander Dalton Saberhagen, who recorded a team-high five wins last year, and hard-throwing closer Nick Williams.

"One thing I want to do this year is help this team get about 10 or 12 wins on the mound," said Godley, who started 11 games in 2012 while posting a 3.50 ERA. "I don't think that's a far-fetched goal and I'm excited about that."

Prior to Serrano's arrival to UT in June 2011, Godley and Williams prided themselves on the same attribute - the ability to bring the heat. Saberhagen has never relied on his fastball, but for all three, the message from the skipper has been the same.

"Consistently throwing strikes," Saberhagen said. "The big thing that coach preaches to me."
"I'm a high intensity guy," added Williams, who was second on the team with 55 strikeouts last year, "and he wanted me to be more relaxed so I could pound the strike zone more. And that's helped a lot."

Who's on First…Second, Third

A focus on throwing strikes for the Vols requires faith in a vastly revamped defense to do its job in keeping runs from crossing the plate.

Aside from catcher Ethan Bennett, the other seven field positions will look different than they did in Serrano's inaugural campaign.

Will Maddox will return to the infield after a freshman season where he hit a team best .297, but he'll be moving to third base.

A.J. Simcox, a freshman from Farragut, will fill the vacated shoes of four-year starter Zach Osborne at shortstop.

The right side of the infield will feature an ongoing battle at second base between freshman Jeff Moberg and transfer Taylor Smart, while first base will be manned by transfer Jeff Price.

"I've got all the trust in the world in those guys," Saberhagen said of the Vols' defense. "That's going to be the knock that we have early on, that we've got a lot of freshmen, that we've got a lot young guys that haven't been in the SEC … But they can play."

Green Pastures

With outfield anchors Chris Fritts and Chris Pierce departed, the grassy expanses of the outfield at Lindsey Nelson Stadium will also be patrolled by unfamiliar faces.

Serrano hinted that Christin Stewart and Vance Vizcaino, both freshmen, will log innings in the outfield, as well as providing punch at the plate.

"Vance Vizcaino in left field has a sweet swing," Serrano said. "He's a good athletic guy, can run the bases. I think he'll be a run producer."

Serrano also indicated high hopes for Stewart.

"I think he's going to hit a lot of balls in his career into that gravel parking lot across from right field," Serrano said. "He's done it in practice, and he's done it in the scrimmages."

The new-look Vols will travel to Las Vegas for a four-game set with the Runnin' Rebels of UNLV before returning to Knoxville to open their home slate by hosting No. 22 Arizona State Feb. 22.

"There's going to be some hurdles that we're going to have to overcome along the way, but there's always hurdles, whether you've got an experienced team or not," Serrano said. "But I just know that this team is ready to go.

"And it's going to be very fun."

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