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Don’t call it a comeback, but you can certainly classify Tennessee’s run to the College World Series as redemption. Tony Vitello again has his team in Omaha, after falling short in 2022.
If you’re a fan of college baseball, then you certainly remember what the Vols program put on display last season. A team full of piss and vinegar, not afraid to show some character, even if it agitated the masses. But that was last year, and this 2023 team is nothing like the previous squads.
There were times during the season where Tennessee looked like a team that wouldn’t make the SEC Tournament, let along the NCAA’s. An investigation into Maui Ahuna and a suspension of Tony Vitello casted a cloud over the program for a few games. But there was a sense of struggle in the locker room, along with the entire program.
What was the identity of this team? The Vols certainly couldn’t replicate the 2022 squad with so much roster turnover. So the questions started to rise when the team was struggling, coming off a sweep against Arkansas. At that moment, something had to change.
Whether it be Vitello moving Chase Burns to the bullpen or rearranging the batting order, this team needed a gut-check. Maybe it was Tony Vitello sitting most of his starters during a mid-week game during a drought, but something finally clicked in the locker room.
“In August we weren’t a fun team to be around,” Vitello said Sunday night. “It was awkward. There was a lot of space between the players and the coaches, the players and the players and even the players and the mangers on a couple of occasions. Since then, we have been coming together.”
Finding its identity wasn’t going to happen overnight, this team had to go through the hardships. Maybe it was moving Andrew Lindsey into the Friday night slot, or the humiliating loss to Tennessee Tech after the Arkansas series. This team needed a wakeup call, because nobody in college baseball was going to have sympathy for Tennessee.
Tennessee Was An Afterthought At The Mid-Way Point Of Season
This was a baseball team that was 5-10 in the middle of SEC play, so the hill was steep. But the Vols never gave in, they just rallied around each other. The change in character or play on the field payed off, even after they were eliminated in the opening game of the SEC Tournament.
But if you wanted to see how this team formed an identity of not backing down, look no further than the Clemson regional. Down to the last strike, Zane Denton crushed a ball to left field, sending Tennessee on a streak to Hattiesburg after winning the Regional. The never-give-up mentality wasn’t there at the midway point, but the Vols found out who they were down the stretch.
It carried on, for almost four days in Hattiesburg against Southern Miss. Rain delays forced the Vols to sit around and wait to play baseball. After dropping the first game, and being down 4-0 in the second game, that identity showed up again. The Vols scored 13 unanswered runs over two games and to secure a spot in the College World Series.
A team left for dead just two months ago is now wiring its own story on the way to Omaha. This squad has a few traits that could be compared to the 2022 team, but it’s mostly the players finding their own swagger.
Tony Vitello finished his postgame interviews in the early morning hours of Tuesday, waiting to join his team in the outfield to celebrate. Tennessee fans hadn’t left the stadium, and there went Vitello running out of the dugout towards the group of players that found their way to Omaha.
In true Tony form, he jumped into the team photo, just like he jumped to take the Tennessee job years ago. You might not like him, he might get under your skin, but Tony Vitello has delivered in Knoxville with a number of teams.
Now the Vols head back to Omaha, looking for a little bit of redemption, starting with LSU.