July 23, 2024

Tennessee Head Coach Tony Vitello disputes a call at the NCAA Baseball Tournament Knoxville Regional at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. on Friday, June 4, 2021. Kns Vols Regional Opener

An Ole Miss player bowled over a Tennessee fielder in game three of a weekend series between the Vols and Rebels during the 2018 season. In the dugout, freshman Evan Russell was the only Tennessee players that responded with fire.

Tennessee dropped the series finale 5-0, but Tony Vitello and the Vols found something in the way the freshman Russell responded. Vitello and his staff inherited a roster with a defeated mindset. But through players like Russell, incoming freshmen and results on the field, Tennessee baseball’s culture changed over the course of Vitello’s first two seasons.

Here are the moments that set Tennessee on the path to its first ever National Championship.

Seven years before Tennessee defeated Texas A&M in the College World Series finals, Vitello and the Vols won a major SEC series against the Aggies.

Tennessee took two out of three over No. 14 Texas A&M in Knoxville. It was the second of three SEC series wins for the Vols in Vitello’s first season as head coach and was the first ranked series win of the newest era of Tennessee baseball.

The SEC’s coaches picked Tennessee to finish in last place in the conference in 2018 but the Vols went from 8-22 a year prior to 12-18 in Vitello’s first season. Tennessee was a long way from where they needed to be, but it was step forward in year one.

It was in a team meeting following the conclusion of the 2018 season that Vitello fully understood how bad the defeatist mindset of the program he inherited was.

A player said that he never believed Tennessee baseball would even make a regional. The lack of belief from certain players after a year where the Vols were likely two SEC wins away from making the NCAA Tournament was shocking.

Vitello drew a line in the sand and made it clear to players what the program was going to become and that they would not take a backseat to anyone in the SEC. It didn’t revolutionize the program’s mindset over night but it sparked change.

Tennessee was excellent in pre conference play in 2019. But once SEC play began, it looked like the same old Vols. Tennessee started  4-8 in its first 12 conference games and looked like they would be fighting an uphill battle to make the SEC Tournament.

That’s where things stood when No. 2 Georgia came to Lindsey Nelson Stadium at the halfway point of conference play. Tennessee scratched off two runs against Georgia ace Emerson Hancock to win the Thursday night series opener 2-0.What to know about Tennessee Vols baseball at start of 2022 season

Then Tennessee’s ace Garrett Stallings tossed a complete game shutout to clinch the series victory in game two. It gave the Vols a crucial series win for their postseason hopes and was the first top 10 series win of Vitello’s tenure.

While many players on the 2018 team and some on the 2019 team lacked confidence, veterans like Stallings, Garrett Crochet, Andre and Luc Lipcius as well as underclassmen like Evan Russell, Redmond Walsh and Sean Hunley believed in themselves and the program. They were instrumental in Vitello’s early days.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *