By Mark Nagi
That’s how long it took Tony Vitello to build Tennessee baseball from one of the worst teams in the conference to one of the best in the nation.
“I just wanted to get this thing where people were proud of it,” said Vitello, now in his fourth season as Tennessee’s head coach. The Vols got to this point after sweeping the Regionals and Super Regionals. Their 15-6 whitewash of conference rival LSU in the final game on June 13, proved once again that this is no fluke.
“I think our kids showed up with the right mentality today,” said Vitello. “They were certainly focused, but they were also relaxed.”
“It was a surreal moment,” said Tennessee outfield Evan Russell, who had a home run in the clinching game against the Tigers. “You’ve got 30 guys in the locker room that would do anything for each other. This is a family. To see the program that we are building… the program will be here for a long time. It’s pretty exciting.”
Tennessee fans were loud and proud throughout the Vols 5-0 postseason run, and not only inside Lindsey Nelson Stadium. A block party was set up just outside the gates, and hundreds of fans set up lawn chairs to watch the game on a big screen. It was a great visual for ESPN, giving the nation an extra peak at one of the country’s most passionate fanbases.
“I appreciate the support but people that have to do this for a living, you’d never say, ‘Let’s go to Omaha,’ but we punched our ticket,” said Vitello. “Vol Nation has been a big part of us getting there. The fan support today and other days… I hope they can make the trip (to Omaha).”
Tennessee hadn’t advanced to the College World Series since 2005, and frankly never really even came close over the past 16 years. They’ve only been there four times in program history. It is quite an understatement to say that this is an accomplishment. It’s a gargantuan deal for season ticket sales, for recruiting, for the prospects of stadium renovation… but in the meantime this means that Tennessee is a few wins away from bringing home an NCAA title.
“I think it is hard to put into words what it means to go to Omaha,” said Vitello. “The most important thing is that we have a chance to go to the National Championship series. You have two four team tournaments and those winners to go the National Championship series. So, we have a chance to win another tournament. We were almost about to do it in Hoover (SEC Tournament) and we’ve won the last two so, we will move on to the next one. It’ll be fun to take on that challenge.”
Omaha is approximately 900 miles from Knoxville. There will certainly be a good deal of orange in the stands, even if it means fans are jumping on a plane or taking a 13-hour car ride. The Vols were scheduled to open College World Series play on Sunday, June 20 against Virginia.