HOOVER, Alabama – LSU’s Jay Johnson will be coaching against Tennessee’s Tony Vitello for the first time as head coaches late Friday night in the Southeastern Conference Baseball Tournament at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.
No. 1-ranked Tennessee (50-7) and No. 4 seed LSU (38-18) were expected to start close to 10 p.m. eastern in their first meeting since the Super Regional last season in which Tennessee swept the Tigers in Knoxville, two games to none.
But it’s not like Johnson has not crossed paths with Vitello several times – recruiting paths, that is.
“Oh yeah, I’ve bumped into him a lot in recruiting over the years,” Johnson said. “It’s really easy to see in this thing who works. He stands out in that regard.”
Vitello, 43 and single, and Johnson, 45 and married for less than two years, recruit the country, often like mad men. And both are very good at it. Vitello signed the No. 5 class in the nation for the 2022 season, according to Baseball America. Johnson had the No. 4 class by Baseball America at Arizona entering the 2021 season and could be putting together a No. 1 class or close to it entering the 2023 season for LSU.
As an assistant coach at Arkansas from 2014-17, Vitello was one of the nation’s leading recruiters. Beginning after the ’17 season at Tennessee, he has recruited and built Tennessee into the nation’s No. 1 program from an outfit that had five single-digit win SEC seasons from 2011 through 2017 under coaches Todd Raleigh (7-23 in 2011) and Dave Serrano (8-22 in 2012, 8-20 iin 2013, 9-21 in 2016 and 7-21 in 2017).
After going 29-27 overall and 12-18 in the SEC in his first season in 2018, Vitello improved to 40-21 and 14-16 in 2019 before the COVID-shortened season of 2020. Then came the breakthrough season last year at 50-18 and 20-10 before reaching Tennessee’s first College World Series since 2005. Johnson was at that CWS last year, too, with Arizona for the second time.
“I saw him a lot in recruiting all over,” Johnson said. “He has outstanding talent on his roster and has had it for two years. Just real pitching from the starters through the whole staff really. And they have position players with a really good approach.”
And the Vols have been No. 1 for most of this season. Vitello produced the first 50-win season this year at Tennessee since 1995 and took SEC coach of the year honors.
“It’s one of those things that you look back on as a head coach that’s out recruiting all the time, and you could see this coming at Tennessee,” Johnson said. “And so we’re looking forward to getting after it against a team like that.”
Johnson also tended to bump into Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan and UCLA coach John Savage.
“Tony is one of those guys you see on the trail all the time all over the country,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of other guys who recruit hard, but Tony and a few others really have that work ethic.”
One of Johnson’s best recruits to Arizona and then to LSU as a transfer – Jacob Berry – missed the Tigers’ 11-6 win over Kentucky Thursday night with a hairline fracture to the middle finger on his right hand suffered on May 6 at Alabama. Berry, a switch hitting first baseman/designated hitter who leads LSU with a .381 batting average and has 15 homers and 47 RBIs, played with the injury at Alabama and at Vanderbilt last week only batting right-handed. But he was not ready to go against Kentucky.
Johnson also did not play second baseman Cade Doughty (.286, 12 HRs, 51 RBIs) against Kentucky because of a shoulder injury suffered over the weekend during the sweep at Vanderbilt. Both have a chance to play against Tennessee.
“I don’t know. They’re both legitmate day-to-day,” Johnson said. “We’ll see. I don’t know why they wouldn’t want to play in this tournament if they can. There are a billion Major League scouts here (closer to 30), great fans. Unbelievable environment. Real thankful to our fans for coming out. I thought it provided us with a lot of energy. Great atmosphere. I’ve been really looking forward to this.”
STARTING PITCHERS: Sophomore left-hander Chase Dollander (8-0, 2.30 ERA, 90 strikeouts, 9 walks) will start for Tennessee against LSU sophomore right-hander Ty Floyd (5-3, 3.12 ERA, 59 strikeouts, 15 walks).
No. 7 seed Florida eliminated No. 3 Arkansas, 7-5.
No. 12 seed Kentucky eliminated No. 8 seed Vanderbilt, 10-2.
No. 2 seed Texas A&M beat No. 11 seed Alabama, 12-8.
SATURDAY SCHEDULE ON SEC NETWORK, ALL TIMES EASTERN:
Game 13 – Florida versus Alabama, 10:30 a.m.
Game 14 – Kentucky vs. Tennessee-LSU loser, 30 minutes after completion of above game.
Game 15 – Game 13 winner vs. Texas A&M, 5:30 p.m.
Game 16 – Game 14 winner vs. Tennessee-LSU winner, 30 minutes after completion of above game.
Game 17 – Championship Game, 3 p.m., ESPN2.