OMAHA–UC Irvine coach Dave Serrano knew he had a special group of players way back in September. By February, he was privately but confidently telling people his team was capable of not only making a regional, but winning one. Deep down, he thought his team was capable of doing far more than that, but something held him back from saying so.
|Coach of the Year
|1981||Ron Fraser, Miami|
|1982||Gene Stephenson, Wichita State|
|1983||Barry Shollenberger, Alabama|
|1984||Augie Garrido, Cal State Fullerton|
|1985||Ron Polk, Mississippi State|
|1986||Skip Berman, Louisiana State and Dave Snow, Loyola Marymount|
|1987||Mark Marquess, Stanford|
|1988||Jim Brock, Arizona State|
|1989||Dave Snow, Long Beach State|
|1990||Steve Webber, Georgia|
|1991||Jim Hendry, Creighton|
|1992||Andy Lopez, Pepperdine|
|1993||Gene Stephenson, Wichita State|
|1994||Jim Morris, Miami|
|1995||Rod Delmonico, Tennessee|
|1996||Skip Bertman, Louisiana State|
|1997||Jim Wells, Alabama|
|1998||Pat Murphy, Arizona State|
|1999||Wayne Graham, Rice|
|2000||Ray Tanner, South Carolina|
|2001||Dave Van Horn, Nebraska|
|2002||Augie Garrido, Texas|
|2003||George Horton, Cal State Fullerton|
|2004||David Perno, Georgia|
|2005||Rick Jones, Tulane|
|2006||Pat Casey, Oregon State|
“We had the right guys coming back, we had the right mix of guys coming in, and everybody thinks they can win in September when everybody’s coming in,” Serrano said. “But these guys just did things right–the way they dressed, they showed up to practice on time, they showed up in the weight room, they did things right. If I was at a place like Cal State Fullerton with the same team, a program that knew how to get to Omaha, I would have said this team’s going to Omaha. But the reason I hesitated to say that was because this program had never even won a single regional game, let alone a regional.”
But Serrano knew something about getting to Omaha. He had done it five times as an assistant coach with Tennessee and Fullerton, even winning a national championship with the Titans in 2004, when he earned Assistant Coach of the Year honors. So when the Anteaters were shipped to the Round Rock regional as a No. 2 seed and pitted against No. 4 national seed Texas, Serrano wasn’t daunted. Instead, he simply turned Irvine into a program that can now say it knows how to get to Omaha.
The Anteaters swept through the regional, then went on the road and swept Wichita State in a super-regional to earn a trip to the College World Series in just the sixth season since the program was reinstated after a 10-year hibernation. UCI wasn’t satisfied just reaching the CWS, winning a pair of thrilling extra-inning games against two more traditional powerhouses, Cal State Fullerton and Arizona State.
By always demanding excellence, Serrano raised the bar at Irvine. For that, he is Baseball America’s 2007 Coach of the Year.
Serrano’s high expectations for his club aren’t just reserved for games. The Anteaters are held to the highest standards even in practice. When the players are playing catch at the start of practice, they are required to run hills for every ball that touches the ground. Serrano credits assistant coach Greg Bergeron for that idea.
“The first day they started, they didn’™t know (Bergeron) was counting, they had to run 10 to 12 hills,” Serrano said. “But by the end we had it down to one to two. It’s about playing catch. We want to do everything at the highest level of competitiveness–it’s about quality repetition, quality in everything they do.”
The Anteaters don’t walk nonchalantly onto the practice field–they jog. They are required to maintain their concentration through batting practice, infield practice, even setting up and clearing the field. UCI has turned clearing the field into a own game, timing how fast they can take down the batting cage, screens and tarps. The ‘Eaters have gotten so proficient at it, they can do it in 27 seconds.
Of course, practice isn’t all business for Irvine. The coaching staff has fostered an atmosphere where players can stay loose by goofing around, performing skits and executing elaborate handshakes.
“We like to have fun,” Serrano said. “That probably starts a little bit with my personality–I like to have fun, joke around, it keeps them looser. I try to emphasize in them there’s a bigger skill than this game. When you start looking at this game bigger than that, you’re setting yourself up to fail. They say play baseball, they don’™t say work baseball.”
Serrano is quick to share the credit for his team’s success with assistant coaches Bergeron, Sergio Brown and Nathan Choate, as well as his supportive family (wife Tracy and three sons Kyle, Zachary and Parker). He learned from his apprenticeship under Fullerton coach George Horton the value of delegating responsibility, and he says he could not have become the head coach he is today if Horton had not trusted him to handle the Titans’ pitchers and recruiting duties.
He also learned UCI’s aggressive, fundamentally sound style of play from Horton, as well as other West Coast coaching giants like Augie Garrido, Dave Snow and Wally Kincaid. That style of play has a lot to do with Irvine’s success, and Serrano’s club executes it extremely well.
Horton has long known that Serrano would make a fine head coach, and his disappointment about losing to Irvine in the CWS was tempered with pride at what his pupil had accomplished.
“He wasn’™t the most talented player, but at his level, he played above his capabilities,” Horton said of Serrano, who played for two years at Cerritos (Calif.) Junior College and another season at Fullerton. “His work ethic, tenacity, intelligence, and as you can tell, he has a great rapport with everyone. He understood the science of pitching, but most of all, I think it is his people skills.
“He gives me a lot of credit. He’™s been making me look good for 24 years. He made me look good as a player, as an assistant coach and now my assistant coaches continue to make me look good.”