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There have been expectations for this Tennessee baseball team for over three months now, so with the NCAA Tournament set to begin on Friday, the Vols are looking to build off the SEC Championship and make a run towards Omaha.
Tennessee is also looking to break a drought that hasn’t seen the No.1 seeded team win the NCAA Tournament since Miami did it in 1995. The Vols are also looking to set the program record for wins on Friday night. They currently sit at 53 wins on the season, with a victory on Friday night, they break the record held since 1995.
Vols head coach Tony Vitello has been tinkering with the pitching rotation over the last few weeks, while also trying to find the right touch as they enter the regional’s on Friday. From a pitching standpoint, Tennessee handled its business in Hoover, never trailing during the championship run. They did this while also facing three of the hottest hitting teams in the SEC. Still, he doesn’t know if previous preparation will pay off, but they’ve tried to set themselves up for success coming off a long week in Alabama, according to Vitello.
“You get four days to do the things you need to do, get your mind right, your body right and then go out and play on Friday. I don’t know if anyone can get it to go exactly the way they want. But as we stand here now, we’re in a similar rhythm to how we were last weekend where we had success against a bunch of really good teams.
“Also you could argue against three of the hottest teams in the country hitting the bat we ran into, with LSU, Kentucky and also Florida at the time,” Vitello added. “Our pitchers did well and yet we didn’t extend anyone beyond what they’ve already done at some point or what would be called reasonable.”
Whether it be Chase Dollander, Chase Burns, Drew Beam or Blade Tidwell, the Vols have found themselves in a great spot all season when it comes to a starting rotation. Vitello decided that he wanted to switch things up recently and put Dollander into a Friday starter, but the Vols head coach decided to go with the Blade Tidwell to open the regionals, just like he did at the SEC Tournament.
It’s all about staying in a rhythm for the Tennessee head coach.
“We wanted to kind of stick with, alright let’s kinda get into a rhythm here and Blade led us into the tournament, which our entire team played well. So, he’ll lead us into this tournament. Much like last week, you’re only assured two games, so you might as well not look past that and you probably wanna prepare for those two games, so you don’t want to put it in stone, but it will most likely be Dollander in game two.”
As for who comes out of the bullpen and what that situational game management will look like for Tennessee, they have the options. Whether it be Ben Joyce, Kirby Connell, Redmond Walsh, Camden Sewell, Mark McLaughlin or Will Mabrey, this team is loaded with guys who have experience. Vitello mentioned in his media availability that the coaching staff has prepared for the next two games, because those are the only games guaranteed.
“We’ve kinda mapped out the bullpen for those two days as well. Again, you gotta be willing to go outside your routine or comfort zone as a pitcher. Be anxious to help the team win or be happy to help win, in any shape or form.”
The magnitude of the NCAA Tournament isn’t lost on anyone within this team. There are some who have experienced what it’s like to actually play in a big game environment like the one they will play, starting with Alabama State on Friday night. But this squad is also filled with guys who were waiting for their opportunity, sitting behind the stellar lineup last season. So having veterans like Luc Lipcius, Evan Russell, Drew Gilbert and Jordan Beck will only benefit their teammates who are looking for tips on how to control their emotions and handle the Tournament.
Tony Vitello says is all comes down to visualization and having the guys with experience be able to lend advice for the guys who will step on the field for the first time in an NCAA Regional. But playing in a big time environment in Hoover last weekend should certainly help with any concerns about the moment being too big.
“I think you reflect back on last Sunday. There’s a lot of adrenaline and emotion that goes into playing in that SEC Final, fortunately we can stand here and say I’ve done that a couple of times and so can a couple of our players. Though they can’t put Blake Burke up there in that situation, they can kinda give him a vision of what that’s like.
“I think our guys can illustrate to the one’s who haven’t been here, this is kinda what it looks like,” Vitello added. “Visualization is kinda a big thing for any athlete. It’s huge, I don’t think we win last Sunday or hold that lead or be in that game without what in on in the year prior.”
Only time will tell if this team can live up to the expectations, but they sure sound ready to add another trophy to the 2022 season. All eyes are on Tennessee, let’s see how they handle the pressure. We will see how Alabama State, Georgia Tech or Campbell handle the crowd in Knoxville, but Evan Russell is expecting another raucous environment.
“I expect a rowdy one, it was pretty cool to see how much orange was in Hoover. Based on the ticket prices and how many people are struggling to get tickets, I expect it to be pretty packed and loud.