Inside Tennessee baseball’s national championship celebration, from dirt to tears

OMAHA, Neb. — Tony Vitello emptied his hand.

The Tennessee baseball coach chucked a handful of dirt into the third-base dugout at Charles Schwab Field. His father, Greg, walked up the steps through the discarded dirt and filled his waiting arms.

Vitello held tightly, cradling him in the most precious seconds of his finest night in the profession he learned from watching his dad.

On a steamy summer night, the Vols perched on a pinnacle that seemed unattainable seven years ago, unavoidable two years ago, and utterly unmatched Monday. They are the national champions, the final team standing in the College World Series for the first time in program history and the culmination of a rapid restoration under Tony Vitello’s tutelage.

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“It is a beautiful day to be here,” said Vols superstar Christian Moore, who had long lost track of the number of times he started crying.

Tennessee beat Texas A&M 6-5 in a thrilling Game 3 of the College World Series final that appeared secure after a middle-inning thump from the Vols, but wasn’t settled until an Aaron Combs breaking ball eluded the bat of Texas A&M’s Ted Burton and found the glove of catcher Cal Stark.

The Vols flooded the field, rolling into the outfield, spurning the signature dogpile of national champions.

Why do what everyone else does? The Vitello-led Vols built it their own way and they celebrated it their own way.

Blake Burke picked up Vitello by third base. Moore joined in and the trio hopped around together, two of the staples of Tennessee’s unparalleled three-year run reveling with their unrelenting leader.

“He has so much passion for us that it makes us want to play hard,” said pitcher Drew Beam, another three-year staple of the Vols. “Other teams and other fans can say what they want but when a coach is willing to fight a war for you, it makes you play that much harder and want it that much more.”

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Take the seminal moment as the definitive example. Hobbled outfielder Hunter Ensley pushed his ailing hamstring to its maximum power, bearing down on third base without any thought of slowing. He eyed shortstop Dean Curley signaling where to slide and reacted, contorting his body around the tag and to the plate for the eventual winning run.

Moore labeled it a football play on a baseball diamond. Ensley labeled it necessary.

“You would almost have to chop my damn leg off for me to not come out here and play these last three games,” Ensley said.

That slide capped the seventh-inning stretch that most encapsulated the title-clinching win. It began when a grounder bounded over Burke and was destined for right field. But Burke didn’t hear cheers suggesting it got to the outfield. Moore saved the day, dashing behind Burke and lifting the Vols with an imperative 4-3 putout.

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Dylan Dreiling, as he did all College World Series, let his bat do the talking. He whacked a two-run homer in the seventh for the third time in the finals.

Ensley slid into Vols history two batters later, launching his helmet in delight, and Peyton Manning got tears in his eyes that lingered hours later on the field. He was among the Tennessee royalty on hand, along with Rick Barnes and Josh Heupel. Moore darted through the crowds hollering, “Where’s Morgan Wallen at?”

Moore had another question.

How many days ago did he yell into the Tennessee dugout to inspire a ninth-inning rally against Florida State in the CWS opener?

It was 10 days prior when he hollered, “Let’s fight!”

It was two days prior that Beam stepped into his leadership role again. He penned a four-word message to his teammates in a GroupMe named “Do It Loose” after the Vols lost Game 1 in the CWS final.

“Just one more day,” Beam wrote before everyone went to sleep.

A couple of teammates playfully told him to shut up. But no one questioned the meaning. The Vols didn’t lose again, playing one more day, then one more day again as pitcher Zander Sechrist cemented his legacy in what he labeled the biggest game in Tennessee history.

Sechrist and Kirby Connell — the darling duo of the team — doused Vitello with a Gatorade bath. Curley put his arm around his mom on the edge of the infield and stared at the scoreboard.

Meghan Anderson, a support staffer with the baseball program, stood on the infield grass amid it all. She is an Omaha native, and her late mother, Marcia, sent Vitello a wooden baseball placard with the number of miles between Knoxville and Omaha painted on it. It still stands in Vitello’s office.

It likely will be joined soon by another keepsake from Omaha.

Vitello walked to the dirt behind home plate, bent over and scooped up another handful from among the confetti. He lost track of the grass he kept from a high school state championship.

He wasn’t letting the dirt go.

Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at michael.wilson@knoxnews.com and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it

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