KNOXVILLE -- The weather, unusually sunny and warm for a mid-February afternoon, was pleasant.
The attendance set a school record.
And the University of Tennessee baseball team opened its season with a win.
Even Dave Serrano himself couldn't have asked for a better debut as the Volunteers' coach Friday afternoon.
"I've been in a lot of openers as a head coach," Serrano said after the Vols beat Northern Illinois 7-1 at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. "This is my eighth one, my third one at a different program. I told my wife, Tracy, this morning I was the most excited about this one."
Serrano said he felt the Vols set a calm, focused tone during pregame warmups. After an eventful first inning, the game settled in before senior left fielder Chris Pierce's three-run home run doubled the Vols' lead to 6-0. UT scored twice in the first inning courtesy of a balk, two walks, two hit batters and a fielder's choice.
Senior Drew Steckenrider capped a strong performance as UT's starting pitcher with a solo home run in the eighth inning. The 6-foot-5 right-hander threw four scoreless innings, allowed just two hits and struck out two Huskies hitters.
Serrano believes Steckenrider has the ability to be his Friday night starter and anchor a young pitching staff.
"For him to be able to do those types of things, it's going to make it a lot easier for us to be successful," said Serrano, who's taken California-Irvine and Cal State Fullerton to the College World Series. "There's no player that's more important than any other player, but with some of his abilities, if he can live up to some of them, it's going to help us become more successful consistently."
Steckenrider said he managed his nerves well despite the eight months of anticipation building toward Serrano's debut.
"I rolled out of bed just thinking how blessed I was to be here today and wake up and show up at the ballpark," he said. "It didn't really hit me until the first at-bat when I yanked one foul, and I got beamed on the next one. The nervousness went away right after that."
Freshman pitchers Robbie Kidd and Conner Stevens combined to throw five strong innings in relief. Kidd walked the first batter he faced before inducing a double play. Stevens entered in the eighth after Kidd walked two batters and walked in the Huskies' lone run before inducing an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded.
Freshman right fielder Jared Allen from Polk County smacked a double to right-center field in the fifth inning.
"Lot of nerves, just wanting to get that first fly ball and that first at-bat," Allen said. "Our defense was great. We played hard all the way around the field. I think that's what we're trying to be, and that's what we did today."
The 2,812 fans in the stands surpassed the previous attendance record for a season opener, which was set in 1995. That team was the defending SEC champion and eventually reached the program's first College World Series.
Serrano's first UT team might not reach those heights, but his winning pedigree has created some interest as Serrano tries to rebuild a program that failed to make the postseason all four years under Todd Raleigh.
"I just told the players in there a lot of [my excitement] had to do with them and what they've had to overcome, some of their tough times and for how much they've bought in to what we're trying to do here," Serrano said. "This was special. This isn't just about me. This is for them."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...