Texas A&M vs Tennessee, May 18, 2013
Tennessee weathered intermittent rain and overcame a four-run deficit to beat Texas A&M on Saturday afternoon at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
The 7-5 victory constituted a pleasant diversion for a team that so often has either self-destructed or been overwhelmed by its SEC competition. The Vols were downright resourceful in rallying past Texas A&M and providing a merciful ending to another losing season.
But forgive UT coach Dave Serrano for not executing celebratory cartwheels. One conference victory hardly registers when weighed against all the wrongs of a 22-30 season (8-20 in the SEC) in which UT again failed to meet the minimal standards required for the postseason conference tournament.
“This is almost sickening to me to know this program hasn’t been to (the SEC tournament) since 2007,” Serrano said.
And it’s almost stunning when you consider the up-and-down nature of college baseball.
The extreme swings between success and failure were apparent during the last half of the Rod Delmonico era (1990-2007). His 1999 and 2000 Vols combined to lose 38 SEC games, but his next team made the College World Series.
In 2005, the Vols again qualified for the CWS. Two years later, after back-to-back losing conference records, Delmonico was fired.
Former UT athletic director Mike Hamilton sought more consistency when he made the move. He got it.
Tennessee has had one winning season in the last six years, four under former coach Todd Raleigh and two under Serrano. In none of those seasons did it finish higher than fifth in the SEC East.
Raleigh’s resume can’t match that of Serrano, who had winning teams at both Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine before taking the job at Tennessee, where he was once an assistant under Delmonico. But Serrano’s UT teams often haven’t looked much different from Raleigh’s when you put them on the field against another SEC opponent.
The Vols are 16-42 in two SEC seasons under Serrano. They were 19-41 in Raleigh’s last two seasons, and 13-41 under Mark Connor in 1988-89. Connor was fired after his second Tennessee team lost 23 of 27 SEC games.
In defense of Serrano, Raleigh didn’t leave a wealth of talent behind. But there was scant improvement between Serrano’s first and second teams. And how much improvement did you see from start to finish for this young team, which lost 10 of its last 13 SEC games?
Serrano doesn’t discourage or deflect criticism. He leads the way, in fact.
“The first person I’m going to look at is myself,” he said. “I didn’t come here for the job. I came here to win.”
Then, he cites all the reasons this should be a winning program.
“We have beautiful facilities,” he said. “We have a beautiful field to play on. Everything we have is at the championship level except for the play of the program.”
After measuring the program’s progress in “baby steps” earlier this season, he has something else in mind.
“This was the year of baby steps, and we didn’t reach our goal,” Serrano said. “The baby steps are gone.”
Starting pitcher Zack Godley is the only senior of note. So experience will be in UT’s favor next season.
But despite all the returning experience, you can’t ignore the program’s shortcomings. Tennessee was a distant last in the conference in pitching, and three different SEC players had as many or more home runs as the 13 hit by all the Vols combined.
Given all the ground to be made up, Serrano’s choice of words is appropriate: “We’ve got to take leaps now.”
And given the program’s recent history, it will take a leap of faith to believe they can do it.