Nation’s dominant program post-COVID, the Tennessee Vols seeking elusive title

No. 1 national seed Tennessee has established itself as the dominant post-pandemic baseball program.

All that’s missing is a national title.

The Volunteers’ 204 victories and 540 home runs since the start of the 2021 season are the most of any Division I program. They’ve won two SEC regular-season titles and two conference tournament championships.

Their nation-leading and program-record 159 homers this season are the most since the 1997 LSU “Gorilla Ball” team hit a record 188.

Now the Vols are trying to slug their way to two more victories to reach a third College World Series in four years and second straight. The Vols will host Evansville (38-24), who knocked off No. 16 East Carolina for its first regional championship, in the best-of-three Knoxville Super Regional starting Friday.

Coach Tony Vitello, hired by Tennessee in June 2017, has the Vols rolling going 12-0 winning four straight regionals.

“I think the last three years have been a compound effect of some lessons learned and some things gained by other people that came before these guys,” Vitello said.

The Vols still will have to deal with the nation’s top seed not winning the national title since 1999 when the CWS began its current format. For now, they’re focused on trying to be among the eight teams advancing to the CWS starting June 14 in Omaha, Nebraska.

Centerfielder Hunter Ensley, who played in Omaha last June, said the Vols put together three pretty complete offensive games in the regional. The message after advancing was enjoy briefly as just another step.

“There’s a lot to do for the rest of the week to get better for this weekend regardless of who we play,” Ensley said.

Evansville leftfielder Mark Shallenberger said the key to pulling off big upsets is focusing one pitch and hit at a time. That’s what helped the Aces make program history.

“Pressure’s off of us,” Shallenberger said before double-checking to make sure Evansville’s next stop is Knoxville. “We’re playing baseball. We’re enjoying this awesome atmosphere. … This ship ain’t sunk yet.”

Evansville will have to do something that few opponents have managed against the Vols, who’ve shown off their power all season. They’ve homered in 57 of 64 games this season, including 12 while winning three games in the regional.

Worse for opponents is trying to figure out who to avoid with Tennessee’s power is spread throughout the lineup. All-SEC second baseman Christian Moore has a team-high 29, and he’s just one of 15 different Vols with at least one home run. Six have at least 11 home runs.

Nine different Vols have had a grand slam with Tennessee tying 1996 Oklahoma (66 games) with 12 grand slams. Only 2003 Arizona State (14 in 68 games) has had more.

Vitello knows he has a large group of infielders led by 6-foot-3 first baseman Blake Burke and a pair of 6-foot-1 players in Moore and third baseman Billy Amick, who transferred from Clemson last summer. He also sees teammates who take pride and trust each other to come through with big hits, almost coaching each other.

“You never know who it’s going to be that day, but I think everyone is involved and contributing, which makes it fun,” Vitello said.

Even when Moore, Burke and Amick — Tennessee’s three leadoff hitters — combined to go 1-for-13 in the regional clincher over Southern Miss, four different Vols combined to hit five home runs. Cal Stark had two.

Christian Ostrander saw Tennessee last year as Southern Miss’ pitching coach before being promoted last offseason. He sees Vitello having a more experienced and mature roster than a year ago when the Vols went into Hattiesburg and beat Southern Miss to clinch the program’s sixth CWS berth all-time.

Combined with Tennessee’s lengthy lineup, Ostrander said the Vols just are a handful no matter who they face next.

“You can’t catch your breath, you have to execute, and if you give them a little bit of something they can hurt you because they can do so many things,” Ostrander said. “It’s just a very, very, very good lineup and a very good program, very good team.”


AP college sports:

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up