KNOXVILLE -- Midway through the SEC baseball season, Tennessee was one game under .500 in league play and right in the middle of the standings.
The Volunteers had wins over then-unbeaten Kentucky, national powers South Carolina and Florida and a sweep of Alabama.
After a difficult sweep at Mississippi State that featured two extra-inning losses, though, the bottom fell out, and UT won just once more in SEC play and lost 16 of their final 18 games after a season-ending sweep from Arkansas in Knoxville this weekend.
"I don't know if I have ever felt this empty honestly," said first-year coach Dave Serrano, who's taken Cal State Fullerton and California-Irvine to the College World Series in his coaching career. "That can sound spoiled, but I have been spoiled in my career, I've been spoiled to be around a lot of great coaches, a lot of great teams. This is the first time that the end of the schedule meant the end of the season.
"It's something that I definitely don't want to get used to. There is a commitment in me that there are a lot of things that need to get fixed. There are things that we didn't get fixed quite as good as we wanted to."
The Vols' goal from the start was to reach the SEC tournament in Hoover, a level the program failed to reach in four seasons under Todd Raleigh. At the halfway point, the plucky Vols were in the thick of the race. Short on depth in its pitching staff and shorter on offensive power, UT was grinding out close wins and remaining competitive.
After that tough weekend series at Mississippi State, though, it all unraveled.
"We were having fun playing and competing every day, and we had some injuries and just started not playing good," said freshman Will Maddox, the second baseman and leadoff hitter who led UT in batting average, hits, runs and stolen bases. "It got miserable toward the end. We kept losing.
"I think we'll come back next year. I think it's a learning experience."
Friday-night starter Zack Godley missed a month with an oblique injury. Nick Blount, who began the season as the starter before converting to the Vols' closer, was dismissed from the team while UT was in Auburn for a weekend series. Those two losses were crucial for an already-thin pitching staff.
Offensively, the Vols scored three runs or less in nine of their final 18 games.
"It wasn't a lot of fun," said freshman outfielder Jared Allen, a former Polk County High standout. "Everybody was pressing and everybody was trying to get something going. I think one of our biggest problems was we started pressing on ourselves trying to get something done, which that's one of the things you can't really do as a baseball player."
The season figured to be a struggle for the Vols, but the solid early start created some momentum and hope that UT might overachieve or at least accomplish its goal. UT loses six seniors, three of whom were every-day players, and two-way junior Drew Steckenrider has enough talent to go in the Major League draft in early June. With Serrano's winning track record, there's hope in the future.
"They're the best coaching staff in the country," Maddox said. "We've just got to trust them and everybody's got to buy into it and we'll be good. I think everyone enjoyed playing for them this year, and they've done so much for this program that I'm excited about next year."
Serrano and his staff have been successful on the recruiting trail. The Vols signed 13 players for next season in the fall and could add more. Adding more talent to the roster's is essential for competing in the SEC and completing the rebuilding job.
"We didn't reach our goals," Serrano said. "I have to look at myself in the mirror every day. I know we committed to this team, and I feel that this team committed to us. Whenever there is change, sometimes there are things that go on and people don't buy into it.
"I think these guys bought into it, but we were short in some areas and when I had to make some tough decisions in regards to personnel, it didn't help our situation. But I wouldn't change it. I don't second-guess myself because it's about doing the things that are right for this baseball program and this university."