HOOVER, Ala. — She tends to stick out in the background when television cameras point at right-handed hitters.
Lower bowl. Section EE. Barely a handful of rows above the dugout. She’s there with reading material, a scorebook, orange top, Power T hat.
Regardless of the teams on the field, she’s sporting the orange in a cloud of blue, purple and various shades of red.
The Tennessee fan that makes it down for the league tournament year-in, year-out sticks out because she isn’t shoulder to shoulder with members of Big Orange Country. That’s because her Volunteers have played a total of 18 innings in the Southeastern Conference tournament the last eight years combined.
“When you’re in these types of atmospheres, it brings teams closer together,” Vols coach Dave Serrano said.
While Arkansas players picked up gloves and hats after celebrating their 2-1 walk-off win late Tuesday evening to send Tennessee home, Serrano dove on the sword.
“I’ve been slapped down to be honest with you,” Serrano said.
After his Volunteers posted their third losing season in his four years at the helm, Serrano didn’t mince words. He takes an overall record of 101-110 and Southeastern Conference mark of 39-78 into 2016.
Serrano described 2015 as a team that absolutely came up short, didn’t reach goals, sustained nothing, had to grind for what breaks it did get, struggled, underachieved and wasn’t what was expected.
Building a baseball program to elite status on Rocky Top has proven to be a much tougher task for Serrano and his staff. The Diamond Vols lack consistent tradition and change must come. The humbled coach plans to look in the mirror before any moves are made but rest assured they’re coming.
A backbone of defense and pitching will always be a mainstay with Serrano teams — and they should be. Three of the four arms that threw agains the Razorbacks consistently had fastballs clock in the low-to-mid 90s. Loading up the Tennessee staff with power stuff could be a one alteration made but mid-90s arms rarely make it through the draft without at least being dangled quite a bit of cash. Regardless, it’s a move that could equal postseason results.
Serrano correctly mentioned how the lineup must include more batters that can drive the baseball to gaps or over the fence. Arkansas center fielder Andrew Benintendi (who’s all of 5-10, 180) has more extra base hits (32) than Tuesday Tennessee starters Chris Hall (0), Jared Pruett (4), Jordan Rodgers (6), Benito Santiago (1), A.J. Simcox (11) and Parker Wormsley (2) combined.
More home runs. More Ks for queso. The duo could land many more Vols fans in the stands. In Tennessee’s 24 home dates at Lindsey Nelson Stadium, the average attendance was 1,875.
It all starts somewhere. The MLB Draft is the next hurdle for Tennessee baseball, which is a sign that talent is making its way in and out of the program.
Serrano & Co. signed the best prep catcher and the best prep third baseman in the nation. Now, will Chris Betts and Ke’Bryan Hayes pass on millions to be Vols? Time will tell. Some expect Trey Cabbage and Daniel Neal to be selected also. Simcox, Andrew Lee and Christin Stewart are some of the Tennessee junior draft eligible and will likely have to say “no thanks” to six-figure bonus offers to return to Tennessee.
“I’ll work hard to educate the guys that are draft-eligible,” Serrano said. “I will never be selfish with those guys. I want them to get what they want out of it. There’s some guys that I’ll work to try to keep. Hopefully their experience here will make them want to come back because you look at the SEC, a lot of teams that have success, have a lot of older guys — but it’s hard. It’s hard to keep guys when there’s nothing they know after the SEC tournament and that’s only been for two years.
“I like the recruits we have coming in. We have to work hard through the draft on that. I think we have a good foundation of guys returning, but I know we had a good foundation of guys returning this year. This was the year that when I took over this was the year that we built everything to and that’s why it’s so disappointing that we came up so short, so short of what our expectations were.”
When the cameras fix on the righties climbing into the box next May in Hoover, if the color orange is singular in the background, chances are Tennessee baseball isn’t back to form. If our lady has company, then Serrano’s blueprint likely turned the corner.
Serrano after 2015 finale