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VOL. 45 | NO. 25 | Friday, June 18, 2021

‘That dude’ Vitello has Vols believing they can win CWS

By Rhiannon Potkey

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The “sleeping giant” that was Tennessee baseball has been awakened by coach Tony Vitello, who is in his fourth season with the Vols.

-- Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee baseball players were always a little envious whenever they traveled to SEC stadiums with fervent fan bases. They wanted to create the same environment in Knoxville and earn some respect from opponents.

After years of mediocrity and apathy, the Vols have resurrected a dormant program into a national contender under head coach Tony Vitello.

They have jolted awake a fan base thirsting for a winner to help offset the decade of disappointment and frustration in football. Plus, of course, the season was a joyous return to normalcy for fans, players and coaches after the cancellation of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Lindsey Nelson Stadium was rocking last weekend as No. 3 Tennessee secured a spot in the College World Series for the first time since 2005. Hitting an NCAA program-record six home runs in the clinching game, the Vols (50-16) swept LSU to punch their ticket to Omaha.

“Just wanted to get this thing to where people were proud of it,’’ Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello says. “And I think the crowd today alone, but also the following on the street, or on TV or via text message for these kids, speaks volumes of where it’s at right now.

“And it’s at that spot because the guys have won. But I think it’s been more about the fashion in which they win with some grit, and they play together.”

Tennessee’s late-season power surge was on display Sunday against LSU, a 15-6 rout. The 15 runs were the team’s most ever in a Super Regional game. The six home runs came from five players, Jake Rucker with two, Connor Pavolony, Drew Gilbert, Jordan Beck and Evan Russell.

Rucker, a native of Greenbrier, and Beck had three hits apiece and the duo also had four and three RBIs, respectively. Russell and Pavolony each contributed two hits. The Vols were fourth in the nation in home runs with 98 after Sunday’s game, recording 39 homers since April 1.

Vol starter Blade Tidwell earned his 10th win of the season, becoming Tennessee’s second pitcher to reach double-digit wins this season. Chad Dallas has 11.

It marks the third time in program history, and first time since 2005, that the Vols have had two pitchers win 10 or more game.

‘The dude wants to win’

Vitello was hired to take over at UT in 2017. At the time, the former SEC assistant said he heard the Tennessee program “has been great, possibly can be great and really should be great.”

Vitello’s first priorities upon arrival were cultivating relationships and establishing a culture.

“Self-belief was a big thing when we got here that kind of needed to be transitioned, and we now have a lot of guys that believe in themselves. And the proof’s kind of in the pudding,” Vitello adds. “... the bottom line is the league prepares you, and if you can hold your own in our league, there’s no reason you shouldn’t believe in yourself or your team, and I think that’s the spot we’re in right now.”

The Vols have taken on the persona of their energetic young coach, who leads with competitive feistiness and refreshingly candid passion. After Tennessee clinched the regional win at home, Vitello jumped into the stands to celebrate with the fans.

“Seeing a guy like that have such an impact on his team and the community, it is pretty awesome. Because that dude, you talk about pure emotion, that dude has got it,” Tennessee senior outfielder Russell says.

“That dude wants to win and he wants to win here, and I think that it is exciting to see a college coach do things that not many other college coaches do. I think a lot of people watch the way he coaches and the way he recruits and I think they want to play for that guy.”

Tennessee plays with an unmistakable confidence and swagger. The Vols are not afraid to ruffle some feathers and celebrate big moments in games.

“I think times have changed. I think we have kind of brought our big brothers along to the playground to take control and to help us out in the fight,” Russell says. “I think it’s time for Tennessee to step up to the fight and I don’t think anybody, including our fan base, are afraid to be the villains.

“I think that is what makes this place special, starting with our coaching staff and our players. We enjoy getting in a fight and we enjoy getting in close games and we enjoy the competition.”

Tennessee senior pitcher Sean Hunley made 14 starts as a true freshman in Vitello’s first season. He’s witnessed the steps taken to build the program from near the bottom of the standings into SEC East champions.

“We were average my first year. I’ve said it before, it’s a testament to our coaches with the culture that they’ve brought, and the fight that we bring each and every day to the field,” Hunley says. “Going from last year, I kind of expected to be in this situation this year, with how much we progressed. And we’re excited to get this thing rolling.”

Sleeping giant

The program’s steady ascent has caught the attention of other athletic departments. Vitello has become a sought-after candidate for job openings this season. Tennessee may end up in a bidding war to keep Vitello in place, with a new contract and facility upgrades as obvious pieces of the pitch.

“We started conversations, I did, with Tony several months ago,” says new Tennessee athletic director Danny White. “He knows that we value what he’s done here. As we do in every sport, we want to build a nationally elite baseball program. I think what we’re doing this season exceeds where we’ve been as a program, we all know that.”

Those within the Tennessee program knew it was a sleeping giant. The Vols just needed to give fans a reason to jump back on the bandwagon. They’ve done it with their success and they’ve done it with their style.

The Super Regional series against LSU sold out within minutes of available tickets going on sale. The demand was so great that administrators decided to hold a block party outside the stadium for fans to watch the games on big screens.

After a 16-year absence in the College World Series, it would be no surprise to see Vols fans flock to Omaha in droves and fill the stands with orange.

For as far as the program has come, the players aren’t taking the trip for granted.

“It’s never been just about getting to Omaha,” Rucker says. “We’ve still got work to do.”

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