Rebuild complete: Tennessee baseball wins its first national title • D1Baseball

Tennessee celebrates the program’s first national title (Photo by Eddie Kelly)


Rebuild complete: Tennessee baseball wins its first national title

OMAHA — There is still scar tissue on this Tennessee team from what it has been through the last several years.

When you listen to enough of their postgame press conferences, it’s clear they still grate against comparisons to the brash 2022 edition of the Volunteers, a team that might be the most hated team in the modern history of college baseball.

More consequential than that is the scar tissue that came from the postseason exits of the previous three years. Two previous trips to the Men’s College World Series in 2021 and 2023 ended in a combined 1-4 record.

Then, of course, there was that 2022 team, which enjoyed the most dominant SEC regular season that we’d seen in a long time. It was a swaggering, self-assured bunch that ran through the SEC with a 25-5 record and had only seven losses going into super regionals that year.

But we know how that story ended. The Volunteers lost to a veteran, quietly confident Notre Dame team at Lindsey Nelson Stadium, cutting short a campaign that looked all but destined to end in a dogpile at Charles Schwab Field in Omaha.

Scar tissue, though, implies healing has taken place and you can’t help but notice that this particular group of Vols carried itself like a team not burdened at all by what happened in the past. Rather, it was a group motivated by that to do what had never been done before at Tennessee.

And they did so with a 6-5 win over Texas A&M Monday night in game three of the MCWS finals, securing the first national title in Tennessee baseball history.

“We had unfinished business, especially this being the third time we’ve been here in the last four years,” said Zander Sechrist, Tennessee’s winning pitcher. (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. And I’m just blessed today (to) get the job done.”

Tennessee players rush out of the dugout to celebrate the team’s national title (Photo by Eric Sorenson)

The celebration after Aaron Combs struck out Ted Burton swinging to end the game, which featured less of a dogpile and more of a moving mob that jumped up and down as it gravitated from the mound to the outfield, looked like a party in which many of the guests are those in charge of Tennessee’s hopes to win championships across all sports—past, present and future.

Peyton Manning, who was very present all weekend both on ESPN’s cameras and on the in-stadium video board, gave so many interviews on the field afterward that you might have thought he played in the game.

Football coach Josh Heupel, upon locking eyes with Vitello in the celebratory madness, ran toward the baseball coach and lifted him off the ground in a hug. Seconds later, men’s basketball coach Rick Barnes joined that duo for an arm-in-arm photo that was captured by, conservatively, a million different on-field photographers.

“Coach Heupel and Coach Barnes, their sports are the same,” Vitello said, speaking of how competitive things are within the SEC. “It was good to see them. You have to lean on other people to survive this thing because it is a monster and the traditions are so deep.”

To be clear, there are still echoes of the edge found on that 2022 team. There are things like Christian Moore chirping at Texas A&M pitcher Chris Cortez after a walk in Sunday afternoon’s game, Billy Amick jawing a bit with A&M third base coach Nolan Cain in Saturday night’s game and head coach Tony Vitello stepping out of the dugout early in Sunday’s matinee and throwing some dirt in frustration over home plate umpire Scott Cline’s strike zone.

It’s different now, though. The self-assuredness shown by the 2022 team kind of felt like a giant box of fireworks. More often than not, when you light the fuse, it ends with a beautiful, breathtaking display that lights up the sky and thrills onlookers. But every so often, things go awry and the fireworks box proves to be full of duds or the whole thing tips over and sends family and friends scattering in horror.

There wasn’t that same level of volatility with this group. Time after time they used that edge to drive them, getting right up to the precipice of boiling over, only to bring it back, focus and execute in moments where things might have gone sideways before.

“In our first year, Ross Kivett gets thrown out (at the MCWS). And I’m in there being an idiot, too, and we probably all just looked like idiots,” Vitello said. “But 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. But that was our niche. We’ve got to play with some attitude. We’ve got to play with some grit. And we’re going to have to get some guys that maybe don’t want to say yes to a school with a better winning record than us. And guys like that, like C-Mo (Moore) and some others with some attitude, have done a lot for this program.”

This championship caps an incredible four-year run in which the Vols have gone 211-62 overall and 83-37 in SEC regular-season play. No SEC team and few, if any, teams in general have piled up wins like that in the last four seasons.

Until now, detractors could eschew those numbers and point to the lack of success on the biggest stage in Omaha, but that’s no longer the case. This national title and a 60-win campaign that puts this team up there with the best national champions of the 64-team regional era is the ultimate “scoreboard” moment for a polarizing program that will always have critics, many of them hanging onto things that happened several years ago.

Lefthander Kirby Connell (35) leads the way in dumping Powerade on head coach Tony Vitello (Photo by Eric Sorenson)

In the big picture, the rebuild that Vitello’s hire promised is complete. It’s not hyperbole to say that this day always felt inevitable once the Volunteers really got going back in 2021 and that’s why despite some cringe-inducing moments and postseason failures along the way, the fanbase never lost faith that Vitello would get them there.

During the celebration, Vitello ran and jumped into the stands, doing a baseball version of the Lambeau Leap, and as he walked onto the stage to receive the championship trophy, every last Tennessee fan in the ballpark chanted “Tony! Tony! Tony!” It was a perfect encapsulation of the way the two parties have embraced each other.

Those same fans at several points also took to chanting “It’s great to be a Tennessee Volunteer,” and while there have been tons of less than great days for Tennessee baseball in the last two decades, there have been plenty of great ones on Vitello’s watch and none greater than Monday night.

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