Saturday July 20th, 2024 12:40AM

Vitello teams that played with attitude and edge laid foundation for Vols' national championship run

By The Associated Press

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Winning the national championship validated what already was increasingly obvious. Tennessee is the standard bearer in this era of college baseball.

The Volunteers' first national title in the sport was the culmination of a seven-year climb from SEC irrelevance to national dominance under Tony Vitello, whose team finished its latest College World Series run with a 6-5 win over Texas A&M in the third and deciding game of the finals Monday night.

“We had unfinished business, especially this being the third time we’ve been here in the last four years," pitcher Zander Sechrist said. “(In) ’21 we didn’t do well, ’22 you could arguably say that was the best college baseball team ever, ’23 we got to experience winning at least a game here. But the job wasn't finished, and '24 just felt a little different.”

Different is certainly one way to describe Tennessee's season.

The Vols' 60 wins set a Southeastern Conference record and were the most nationally since Florida State had 60 in 2002, and they lost back-to-back games just once. They became the first No. 1 national seed to win the championship since 1999 and the fourth SEC team to sweep regular-season, conference tournament and national titles in the same year.

Tennessee's 184 homers rank second all-time behind LSU's NCAA-record 188 in 1997 and were the most since bat standards were put in place in 2011 to regulate exit velocity. The Vols' 37 homers in the national tournament tied the postseason record set by LSU in 1998. Tennessee also was the first team in Division I history to have five players hit at least 20 homers in the same season, led by Christian Moore's 34.

“I’m glad that we finally, finally got it done. I couldn’t be more happier for this program and the way it’s been built," Sechrist said before noting athletic director Danny White's presence in the postgame interview room. “So I’m going to put it out there: I hope there’s a lifetime contract coming soon for Coach Vitello.”

Vitello, who has two years left on a contract that pays him $1.5 million per year, has been embraced by the folks in Knoxville from the start.

In 2018, his first season, he set up a lemonade stand outside Lindsey Nelson Stadium to hold a meet-and-greet while he was serving a two-game suspension for getting ejected from a game. Back then, Tennessee averaged 1,721 fans per game to rank 13th out of 14 teams in the SEC. This season there were overflow crowds of 5,339 per game in a stadium with a listed capacity of 4,283. Renovations now underway will increase seating to over 7,500 next season.

“We have more fans to where you don’t have to do lemonade stands,” Vitello said. “It’s fun to make progress. And as they say, the journey is kind of what it’s about. It’s been a fun journey, in particular, this year.”

The 45-year-old St. Louis native prepared for the Vols' head coaching job while serving as an assistant for eight years at his alma mater, Missouri, three years at TCU under Jim Schlossnagle and four years at Arkansas under Dave Van Horn.

Associate head coach and recruiting coordinator Josh Elander and pitching coach Frank Anderson have been with him from the start in 2017, as have the team's athletic trainer, video coordinator and director of baseball operations.

When Vitello arrived, the Vols hadn't made the NCAA Tournament for 12 years, and he said the program needed to create an identity to differentiate itself from SEC teams that had or were about to win national titles.

Vitello wanted self-made coaches and players, fiery guys who played with an edge. By 2022, all that swagger made the Vols a team opposing fans loved to hate. The Vols embraced the villain's role, best illustrated when Jordan Beck raised his middle finger toward the Alabama outfield while rounding first on a home-run trot.

“We kind of had a theme going there that we needed to find a way to make this thing work. And that freight train got going, and it never really slowed down until it really got out of control, to be honest with you,” Vittelo said. “But that was our niche. We got to play with some attitude. We gotta play with some grit.”

Meanwhile, Vitello and his staff raised the talent level with successive recruiting classes each ranked in the top 15 nationally, including a 2024 class that's No. 1.

This year's team has potential first-round draft picks in Moore and Billy Amick and projected second-round picks in Drew Beam, Blake Burke and Kavares Tears and Dylan Dreiling.

Vitello and his staff won't have much time to celebrate if they want to hold their place atop the SEC, let alone the nation. So there are recruiting visits to set up, a transfer portal to navigate and roster adjustments to be made depending on what happens in next month's Major League Baseball amateur draft.

“We’ve got all the resources in the world with where we’re at, but it’s a place where we kind of had to build a foundation to catch up, again, with some of these other storied programs,” Vitello said. “You don’t ever get to a point where you can look down on everybody because the instant you do that, you’re probably going to take an upper cut from one if not multiple places.”


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