Herrera to aid Vols erase past

The palm trees, warm weather and the confines of Mark Light Stadium will all be all too familiar for several University of Tennessee baseball players when they arrive in Coral Gables to face the University of Miami in the season opener for both teams.

Sure, Javi Herrera will be glad to be back home and able to spend a few days with his family.

Same goes for Walter Sevilla, who played his high school baseball right down the street at Coral Gables High. Matt Sternberg and Dennis Gomez also call Miami their home.

But that shouldn't mean they will be basking in the sun or engaging in any other activities that will divert them from their main purpose for the trip. Ask Herrera how many family members will come out to see him play this week and he doesn't now the answer, exactly.

"I know my immediate family is going to be there, but other than that I couldn't tell you. I'm sure there will be others, " Herrera says. "But I won't be searching the crowd, I'll be getting prepared for a baseball game."

Herrera has seen the South Florida beaches. And granted they look good, he is much more interested in something else. Precisely, a three-game series against the Hurricanes that will feature two of the eight participants in last season's College World Series in Omaha. A series the Hurricanes ended up sweeping to capture their fourth national title in school history

"I love the place, but we're not going to Miami on a vacation," said Herrera, who played at Gulliver Prep and resides in South Florida during the off-season. "Just like them, we have high expectations facing us and what better way to prove ourselves than against the best team in the nation. I think we'll be prepared for the challenge. We hung with them last year and know what it takes to beat them."

This is the first time Tennessee has ever started a season against a team that they end the previous year with. Only, the Vols are looking for better results this time around.

The Volunteers may have hung around, but it was the defending champs who defeated Tennessee twice (21-13, 12-6) sending them packing and moving into the championship game of the tournament. Miami crushed Stanford to win the title. Tennessee finished third in Omaha and with a 48-20. The Hurricanes were 53-12.

Now, seven months later the young and revamped Volunteers take another crack at the Hurricanes. The Volunteers will take the field with only three regular position starters off of last year's squad. Of the 11 players that the Volunteers will bring to Miami, seven of them are freshmen. Tennessee will start the season with three true freshmen and two sophomores in the line-up.

One of those sophomores is well-respected starting catcher Herrera, who was named one of two team captains during the off season and is gaining notoriety as one of the premier back-stops in the Southern Eastern Conference after an impressive freshman season.

Herrera started in 61 games last season, hitting .296 with seven home runs with 45 RBI. Herrera had 63 hits, including 32 doubles Herrera defensive skills for a young player drew raves as he caught 27 of 60 runners attempting to steal.

But Herrera shrugs off the heighten expectations around him.

"I didn't do anything differently. I went about business the way I always do" said Herrera. "I just worked hard everyday this fall and stayed everyday trying to get our pitchers ready. I know I have a responsibility of keeping guys in line on and off the field. But I feel I can still produce no matter what."

Herrera, who played on Team USA this past summer along with UM players Kiki Bengochea and Kevin Howard, might feel like he's at a reunion this weekend as he find himself on opposite dugouts from Paco and Danny Figueroa, both Herrera's teammates at Gulliver Prep. University of Miami shortstop Javy Rodriguez also attended Gulliver Prep, although he never played with Herrera.

"That will be fun. Those kids are going to be great players," Herrera said.

University of Tennessee head coach Rod Delmonico, in his 13th year with the program, will go with two newcomers to the starting rotation. Gone are Wyatt Allen, Brian Gates and Justin Parker who combined to start 41 games a year ago for the Vols last season and guided them into the CWS. They could be in good hands if the pitchers moving into the staff live up to expectations.

Sophomore lefthander Ben Riley will start the middle game of the series, while either junior college transfer Jeffrey Terrell or freshman righthander Jay Sadlowe will face the Hurricanes in the finale. Riley, a hard-thrower, was 13-2 with a 2.59 ERA in junior college a year ago and Sadlowe went 9-2 with a 1.00 ERA in his final year of high school. Sadlowe was drafted in the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 26th round last year, while Riley was taken in the 49th round by the Minnesota Twins.

"We're young, but these guys can pitch," said Herrera. "I'll go to battle with them anytime." Despite experience sprinkled in their starting line-up the Volunteers will have to move on without their top two leading hitters of a year ago. All-American Chris Burke, who led the Volunteers with 20 homers and a .435 batting average, is in the minor leagues along with Jeff Christensen, who hit .341 with 12 home runs and 73 RBI.

Tennessee will go with true freshman Nick Crowe, a member of the 2001 USA Junior National Team, will start at second base and Sevilla, who transferred from Palm Beach Community College and is already ranked as one of the top players in the SEC, will man the shortstop position. Seniors Brandon Hopkins and Ryan Moffett are slated for the outfield.

The Volunteers would deem the weekend successful if they can take two of three from the Hurricanes. But they know accomplishing that against the national champions won't be an easy task.

"They're a great team," Herrera said "We know what we're walking into."

If little else they should remember because they were swept in 1994, the last time they visited the Hurricanes. Miami holds a 6-4 edge in the all-time series, including winning four of five at the ‘Light'.

Sophomore Patrick Hicklen (5-4, 5.27 ERA) will oppose Miami junior right-hander Troy Roberson in the opener. Riley will face Kiki Bengochea (9-4, 4.10 ERA) on Saturday (Feb, 2) and T. J. Prunty will get the call Sunday (Feb. 3) for the Hurricanes.

Canes Time Top Stories