KNOXVILLE, TN – The emotions pouring out of the right field meeting between the Tennessee coaches and players after the loss to Notre Dame was a stark depiction of reality. On one hand, those players knew they squandered a great opportunity to make history, but on the other hand, they understood that things wouldn’t be the same in the future.
Looking back on how the season unfolded, it’s hard not to praise the group for what they did in regards to continuing to build the program. In this day and age of College Baseball, we’re starting to see the growth needed when it comes to updated ballparks and the financial stability needed to keep programs growing. What Tennessee did was bring in fans who may not have been completely sold on baseball at first — and that’s not a bad thing. Growing the game of baseball is key and getting new and skeptical fans to sit through nine innings of baseball takes work. This is what we’ve seen in Knoxville and other college towns across the country.
Knowing you have to continue building the program and not let it slip off the track if the hardest part about sustained success. Tony Vitello has been at Tennessee long enough now to realize that if you put a good product on the field, even though your stadium is outdated, then fans will show up in droves. Now, you add a little spice to that product and you create something that folks outside your kitchen might not prefer.
This was Tennessee Baseball over the last few years, a team that didn’t worry about what others thought of them and played with a brash mentality. Whether it was the bat flips, taunting opposing players on the field or flipping the bird in excitement, this Tennessee team had it all. Players like Drew Gilbert and Jordan Beck, along with others, did not care how you felt about them, it was all a part of the game. The antics grew on the Vols fan base that packed out Lindsey Nelson Stadium every night, but pissed off the rest of college baseball. There were sentiments of ‘you’re disrespecting the game’ or ‘play with class’, which is understandable to the group of traditional baseball fans. But this team wasn’t catering to you, they were worried about creating an atmosphere that brought chaos.
Next year won’t be the same, players are moving on, new transfers and recruits are moving in. This team will look different next season without a number of guys that set a new bar in Knoxville. Taking home the SEC Regular Season and SEC Tournament Championships is a pretty nice season to hang your hat on.
The way they played, no matter if you liked them or not, brought some type of life to a team that finished with 57 wins on the season. It also had other fan bases salivating at the opportunity to rub it in their face every time they lost a game. These same fan bases must have been especially excited to watch them blow it against Notre Dame. Did you see the reaction on social media when Tennessee lost this past Sunday? Sure you did, because you most likely fired off a tweet about it too.
If you play with fire all season long and taunt the entire college baseball world, you better be prepared for when you fail. This is the aftermath of what Tennessee experienced the past few days, besides the players’ grief of not finishing the job or playing their last game together. In the end, they’re just 18-22 year old guys who enjoy the game of baseball, and the way they played on the field took on a life of its own. But they also knew that if they slipped, the hounds would be coming, rightfully so. Through it all, the guys who stuck around and helped bridge the gap between teams will be remembered by that fan base for how they helped keep things on the right path.
Luc Lipcius was asked what Tony Vitello said to the team in right field after the loss, knowing it was the last time he’d play for the coach.
“He just told us that the season was absolutely amazing and we should never forget or feel bad about how far we’ve come and he said that we’ve put him in a really good position to keep this dynasty going. You can see that there’s so much emotion within that group of guys because everyone loves everyone. Everyone is such a good guy, and then you have him, and he’s the most passionate one of the bunch. You want to go to war with him and every single one around you. But it’s just a fantastic team and an absolutely unforgettable one.”
Programs like Vanderbilt, LSU, South Carolina, Florida and others have brought home National Championships, finishing the job. Tennessee sure had the opportunity to give themselves at least a shot, but they blew it at the end. Nobody else’s fault, just theirs, which they will have to live with and will probably eat at them for a long time. But we’ve seen sparks around college sports before, like Bruce Pearl or James Franklin, taking SEC programs and building them into something out of nothing, making them attractive. This is what Tony Vitello has done for baseball in Knoxville, after years of failed attempts at restoring the program.
A new stadium, an outpouring of support from a fan base, recruits knocking down the door and a program that has life again. For the time being, Tennessee will have to deal with a bunch of ‘what ifs’ about the 2022 season, but they’ve also given folks a reason to either hate them or love them, which is all you can ask for.
At least they’re talking about you. There’s no such thing as bad press. Isn’t that what they say?