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March 10, 2014

Confident Vols enjoying succes

It's not winning baseball games that has Tennessee baseball coach Dave Serrano surprised. The number of wins, though, has somewhat caught him off guard.

"I don't know if I could sit here and say I thought we'd be 14-1 after 15 games we played," Serrano said Monday. "But this doesn't surprise me that this team is having success.

"This coaching staff felt that. We saw it in the work ethic, we saw it in the athletes we have. The players are playing, and that's really what it comes down to. The players are playing, and they're having fun doing it."

After that 14-1 start, which included a 12-game winning streak to start the season and winning two of three over the weekend at Arizona State, the Vols are up to No. 17 in USA Today's College Baseball Top 25.

Serrano talked confidently in the preseason that this team, his third as head coach of the Vols, would take the necessary steps to become relevant again in the college baseball landscape.

They've taken those steps rather quickly. And what's more impressive, Serrano said, is what he sees off the field from his club - with an emphasis on 'having fun doing it'.

"All you have to do is spend a few minutes around this group," he explained. "How they act on the buses, the bus rides. How they are around each other in the hotel, how they act around each other in the dugout.

"They love each other, they have a fondness for each other and they're playing for each other. And that's the sign of a great team going in the right direction."

The Vols swept Purdue, UNLV and Quinnipiac in three-game series during their 12-0 start. They also picked up midweek wins against Appalachian State and a two-game set with La Salle.

But more impressive than the start was the response Saturday and Sunday in Tempe, the first road trip of the young season.

Tennessee's perfect start came to an end with a 3-1 loss to the Sun Devils Friday night, but the Vols rallied to win the series with a 6-5 decision Saturday and a 6-4 win Sunday.

"I learned, this coaching staff learned, a lot about this team this weekend," Serrano said. "A lot more than maybe we knew for the first 12 games, even though it was an unblemished record.

"You gotta give a lot of credit to these guys ... to lose your first game (of the series) after having a 12-game winning streak out of the gate, and recover and win two games on the West Coast, with all the travel we had to do, is really a tip of the hat to our players."

The success has started on the mound. The Vols have a 2.47 team earned run average over 135 innings pitched, with more than twice as many strikeouts (97) as walks allowed (45).

"First and foremost we're throwing a lot of strikes," Serrano said. "A lot more strikes than we have in our first two years (and) we can even get better.

"Secondly, I didn't coach any differently. We got better pitchers. We got better arm strength. I finally figured it out, it's not all about coaching. It's about the players, and what kind of players you have, the talent you have."

Andy Cox has a team-high nine appearances and a team-low 0.75 ERA. He's 2-0 in decisions, giving up seven hits, striking out 19 and walking five over 24 innings pitched.

"Andy Cox has been spectacular," Serrano said. "(You) really never know how guys are going to react once the season starts. You can put them through all the tests in the world, scrimmages and practices and all that. But sometimes the light just goes on for guys at certain times in their careers."

That time has been now for Cox, a sophomore from Arlington, Tenn. who had a 5.29 ERA in 21 appearances last season.

"I believe this coaching staff saw that in Andy when we recruited him here," Serrano said. "Very athletic, left-handed pitcher with a quick arm, a good arm, but last year he played the part of a freshman. He at times looked good, and at times looked scared. He doesn't look scared anymore."

Freshman Nick Senzel, a Farragut High School product, has led the Vols at the plate, with team-highs in batting average (.405), RBI (16), walks (11) and on-base percentage (.527).

Senzel had a grand slam in an 8-7 win earlier this season over UNLV and drove in four runs over the weekend at Arizona State, with one Friday and two each Saturday and Sunday.

"I'm going to reiterate what I said about two press conferences ago: Nick Senzel is a beast," Serrano said. "I think he's proven that on the field.

"I just saw some numbers, he's walked 11 times already and only struck out five times. That's pretty amazing for a freshman."

The best part for Serrano's club after winning 14 of the season's first 15 games? This team is far from peaking.

"I think the thing that's probably the greatest thing for a coach to think is that we can still get better, too," Serrano said. "There are areas we can get better."



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