Tennessee Baseball Earned That Title

By Mark Nagi

It was never going to be easy.

Tennessee’s baseball team, the number 1 ranked team in the country, knew full well that the top seed in the NCAA tournament had not won the national championship since the Miami Hurricanes did it in 1999.

The Vols had been to the Men’s College World Series in 2021 and 2023, but never made a series run at a spot in the Finals.   In 2022 they had the best team in the nation for months, only to be upset in the Super Regionals by Notre Dame.

But this time, Tennessee simply would not be denied.

The SEC’s regular season feels like it took place years ago, doesn’t it?  Tennessee won that championship (technically sharing it with a Kentucky squad they beat in two of three games in Lexington in April).

Then in the SEC tournament, the Vols battled back from an opening round loss to Vanderbilt to win another title.

But that was all setting the stage for a month to remember.

The Vols barely broke a sweat in the NCAA Regionals. Beginning on May 31, they beat Northern Kentucky, Indiana, and Southern Miss by a combined score of 33-12.

Tennessee fans who have grown up hoping for the best and preparing for the worst were stressed when the Vols lost Game 2 of the Super Regionals against the spunky underdogs from Evansville. But the winner-take-all Game 3 was a 12-1 destruction by UT against the Purple Aces, and the Vols were on to Omaha.

And that’s where UT needed to be at their best. In the opener against 8 seed Florida State, it looked like the Vols were going to waste an all-world performance from their All-American, second baseman Christian Moore. He went 5 for 6, with a single, two doubles, a triple, and a home run, becoming only the second player to hit for the cycle at the MCWS.

With two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, Blake Burke could have been called for a check swing strike 3 that would have given Tennessee an 11-9 loss. But the first base umpire didn’t ring him up. Maybe the umpire didn’t want to decide the game on what looked like a 50/50 call.  Either way, Burke had new life. He roped a base hit up the middle to tie the game, and two batters later Dylan Dreiling drove him home for a wild 12-11 victory.

It was a sequence of events that rarely happened in Tennessee’s favor for years.  But this Vols team was not afraid of the past.

That win was so big, keeping Tennessee in the winner’s half of the bracket. They’d defeat North Carolina and a rematch with the Seminoles to earn a spot in the finals.

There they’d run into a solid Texas A&M team. In Game 1, the 3-seed jumped out to an early lead and never let up in a 9-5 win.  The Vols looked like that game was still on their minds in Game 2, as UT left players on base multiple times into the 7th inning. But with two outs and one on, Dreiling again played the role of hero, smacking a two-run homer into the right field seats. A 1-0 deficit became a 2-1 lead. Farragut’s Cal Spark gave the Vols some insurance with a two-run blast of his own in the eighth inning, and Tennessee evened the series.

Social media was full of positivity the day of the winner-take-all Game 3, a nice break from the vitriol that typically dominates #VolTwitter. Peyton Manning, UT men’s hoops coach Rick Barnes, football coach Josh Heupel and singer Morgan Wallen (a Gibbs HS grad) were in attendance in Omaha as part of a crowd that was about 70-75% Vols fans.

What followed was 3+ hours of torture, as Vols fans lived and died with every pitch. A 6-1 lead for UT in the eighth inning turned into a 6-5 advantage with two outs in the ninth.  But Aaron Combs got the final strikeout, and the celebration was on, from Memphis to Mountain City and many parts in between.

The Vols finished a remarkable 60-13. Those 60 wins are the most in a season in the history of the Southeastern Conference.

As for the future of Tennessee baseball and the UT athletics department? Peyton Manning said it best.

“This is not the last. I mean, we’re coming. All our sports are coming. And this is just the first, I’m telling you.”