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VOL. 39 | NO. 16 | Friday, April 17, 2015

Spring has sprung mixed success for Vols

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Turn on local TV news in Knoxville, and University of Tennessee spring football is the usually the lead story.

Pick up the daily newspaper, and the Vols’ football team is all over the front page.

Radio talk shows are no different.

It makes sense. Football drives the train at Tennessee – even in the spring.

With spring football wrapping up its fourth week and the Orange & White game set for April 25, let’s take a break from the gridiron and catch up with UT’s other spring sports – the good, the bad and the in-between.

Baseball

Dave Serrano is in his fourth year as UT’s coach, and he says he expected this to be a breakout season for his team. So did UT fans.

It hasn’t happened.

The Vols fell to 15-16, 5-10 in the SEC with last Saturday’s 10-1 loss to No. 23-ranked Missouri, which won the last two games of the three-game series at UT’s Lindsey Nelson Stadium.

UT has won one of five SEC series going into this weekend’s series at Kentucky, which isn’t ranked in the top 25. The Vols’ only SEC series win was the first weekend of April when they won the last two games at unranked Ole Miss.

“We aren’t a good baseball team right now overall,” Serrano told UTsports.com after Game 3 against Missouri. “We’ve shown spurts of (being a good team), and that’s when I get excited, but then we show spurts of just being a ho-hum team, and that’s very disappointing.

“There’s a lot of things we need to get fixed, and make change. We have to make change.”

Serrano and his staff have been trying that all year.

The pitching rotation has changed.

Serrano’s son, Kyle, has moved from a starter’s role to middle relief. Andy Cox, the Vols’ best pitcher in 2014, was a non-starter early in the season – in part due to being limited with a sore arm – and is now a starter (Cox was the winner in Game 1 against Missouri). Bret Marks moved from Friday starter to Saturday starter.

UT’s hitting has been inconsistent. So has the fielding. Errors have been an issue.

With five SEC series left, UT isn’t contending for a top-tier finish in the standings. Instead, the Vols are contending NOT to be one of the two teams left out of the SEC tournament.

“We’ve put ourselves in this position,” Serrano said. “To assess the whole season, I’d say to this point we’re a D-minus to an F, to be honest with you, and it’s on my report card, no one else’s report card, and I’m OK with that. I’m not OK with the D and F, but I’m OK with taking responsibility.”

At the current rate, the Vols might squeeze their way back into the SEC, but not the NCAAs.

Softball

UT co-head coach Ralph Weekly had some blistering comments about his pitching staff after the Lady Vols lost their second consecutive game against No. 1 LSU last Saturday at Lee Softball Stadium.

It came after UT’s 7-4 loss when Gretchen Aucoin entered in relief of starter Erin Gabriel with the No. 14 Lady Vols trailing 4-2 in the fourth inning.

Aucoin, a transfer from Texas Tech, walked the first two batters she faced and hit the next one with a pitch.

Pitcher/Outfielder Rainey Gaffin has been a bright spot on a pitching staff that is causing headaches for coach Ralph Weekly.

-- Photo By Parker Eidson/ Tennessee Athletics

“To be honest, they have to learn to throw strikes,” Weekly told UTSports.com after the game. “You can’t come in in a relief role in a 4-2 ballgame and walk the first two batters and hit the next batter and give up three runs and then pitch great when the pressure’s gone.

“This is a pressure conference. It’s a pressure position, and unfortunately we’re not responding like I would like us to respond, and I’ll take the blame for that being the head coach, but these (players have) got to throw strikes. The difference in today’s game and yesterday’s game were LSU’s pitching staff versus Tennessee’s pitching staff.”

UT’s pitching plans haven’t panned out this year, although a performance by junior Rainey Gaffin gave the team a bit of a lift Sunday.

Gaffin, recruited by UT as an outfielder out of Legacy High School in Thornton, Colo., threw a complete game to beat LSU in Game 3 of the series, an 8-5 win. It left UT with a 30-11 record, 8-7 in the SEC.

“It’s very pleasing,” Weekly said of Gaffin’s pitching performance.

“Rainey is an athlete. That’s the key. She’s an athlete. She can hit, she can run, she can throw, she can think, she can do everything. We kept trying to get her in the game (Friday and Saturday). We just decided (Sunday), ‘What the heck, we’re going to start her.’ ”

Still, Gaffin (7-2, 1.98 ERA) doesn’t solve UT’s pitching situation.

No longer do the Lady Vols have a dominant pitcher as in past years. Last year, then-senior Ellen Renfroe went 30-8 with a 2.02 ERA, 30 complete games, and 12 shutouts.

Gabriel (12-5, 3.08 ERA) was expected to fill that role when she arrived at UT out of Poland (Ohio) Seminary High, but a leg injury that required surgery two years ago was a major setback.

Aucoin (9-2, 3.33) has combined with Gabriel for the majority of the starts (25), and pitcher/infielder Cheyenne Tarango (2-2, 3.39, three starts) is coming off a broken bone in her hand.

Tennessee travels to play Mississippi State in a three-game series starting Friday. After playing Mississippi State – which is receiving votes in the USA Today coaches’ poll – UT has three-game SEC series remaining at No. 7 Alabama (April 23-25) and at home against No. 15 Kentucky.

Unlike UT’s baseball team, softball is a lock for the SEC and the NCAAs.

Men’s tennis

Tennessee’s Senior Day last Sunday was like seven other SEC matches for the Vols: Not good.

UT took a 4-1 home loss to No. 17-ranked Florida and entered Thursday’s SEC Tournament as the No. 8 seed with a 13-11 record, 5-7 in the SEC. The Vols played No. 9 Alabama in Thursday’s first round with the winner facing No. 1 Georgia on Friday.

Tennessee coach Sam Winterbotham says his team’s struggles are related to confidence, or lack of it.

“The effort was there (Sunday), but you have to have that mentality that you’re going to make this (match) yours, and that’s the adjustment this team has to make,” Winterbotham adds.

Lucia Polo of the Tennessee Lady Volunteers chip during the Mercedes-Benz Collegiate Championships hosted by the Lady Vol at Cherokee Country Club.  

-- Photo By Matthew R. Osborne/Tennessee Athletics

“That’s what happens if you lose more than you win, or you have a tough season, you get used to that losing mentality. It happens all the time. There’s only one way to break out of it is that you say, ‘I’m not going to act that way,’ because I can’t fault their effort. I love their effort.”

The Vols last had a losing SEC record in 2012, when they went 5-6. That year, UT beat Alabama 4-1 in the first round of the SEC tournament before losing to Mississippi State 4-2; the Vols then beat UNC Wilmington 4-1 in the first round of the NCAAs and lost to North Carolina 4-0 in the second round.

Tennessee was No. 43 in the ITA rankings last week, and beat No. 52 Auburn 4-1 last Friday.

Even if the Vols lose their first-round SEC match, they should be safe for a spot in the NCAAs.

Winterbotham says a postseason run will take an attitude adjustment.

“I am proud of their effort, and I know that we are on an upswing,” he says. “We are moving in the right direction. If we make the adjustments of the attitude of how we expect to win, and we have that commitment to go after it and be ready for every point, then this team will have a great postseason, and that’s the adjustment we have to make.”

Women’s tennis

If the Lady Vols don’t make a run in this week’s SEC tournament in Columbia, South Carolina (April 15-19), their NCAA chances appear to be slim.

UT (11-14, 3-10 SEC), ranked No. 66 by the ITA, ended the regular season with a 4-0 loss against No. 6 Florida last Sunday in Gainesville, Fla. The Lady Vols have never beaten Florida in women’s tennis.

Tennessee also lost its previous two SEC regular-season matches to No. 25 Ole Miss 4-0 on Senior Day (April 5) and at No. 26 South Carolina 4-3 last Friday.

The loss at South Carolina was grueling, much like other matches.

Knoxville native Caitlyn Williams, one of two seniors along with Joanna Henderson of Scotland, tied the match at 3-all with a three-set victory at No. 3 singles, but South Carolina won it when Erin Stephens beat Laurence Guevremont, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (3).

Two days later, the Lady Vols were done quickly against Florida, and they entered the SEC tournament as the No. 13 seed against No. 12 Auburn.

Women’s Golf

Sure, the women’s golf team might fly under the radar, but it had one of the best springs of any UT sports program.

The Lady Vols headed to the SEC tournament this week (April 17-19) in Birmingham, with two victories and six top-five finishes in the spring.

Tennessee’s first win of the season came in the Westbrook Invitational in Peoria, Ariz., in February. Senior AJ Newell earned medalist honors with a 6-under-par 210, while her sister, freshman Anna Newell, finished in a tie for third.

They also won the San Diego State University Farms Invitational in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., when they beat New Mexico, California, San Diego State, and Colorado in match play in late March.

Men’s Golf

UT’s best finish this spring was second in the Jackrabbit Invitational in Primm, Nev., on March 17 when junior Chad Merzbacher finished 13-under for a fourth-place finish.

The Vols were ninth in their last regular-season match, the 3M Augusta (Ga.) Invitational. Merzbacher, of Dublin, Ohio, tied for 13th at 4-under for his eighth top-25 finish of the season.

The Vols are in the SEC tournament this week at St. Simons Island, Ga.

Swimming

Junior Sean Lehane earned a silver medal in the 200-yard backstroke at the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships in Iowa City, Iowa, on March 28.

Lehane earned his fourth All-American honor, but the Vols finished the three-day meet in 14th place – four spots out of their goal.

“We obviously did not reach our goal of being in the top 10, but when we take a step back and look at the progress that we made as a program, we see the improvements we made in specific events and in individuals,” according to UT coach Matt Kredich in a UT press release.

In the Women’s NCAAs completed March 21, UT senior Molly Hannis finished sixth in the 200 breaststroke and earned All-American honors. UT finished in 11th place for the team’s fourth consecutive top-11 finish.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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