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VOL. 46 | NO. 22 | Friday, June 3, 2022

Vols carry ‘swagger’ of No. 1 seed into NCAA Tournament

By Rhiannon Potkey

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Given his status as a former All-American at Tennessee, Chris Burke expects to be asked questions about the Vols baseball team. But the level of interest this season has gone to another level.

In airports, at stadiums, in restaurants. Fans, coaches, players. Nearly everyone almost everywhere wants to talk about the Vols.

From their home runs to their fur coats to the 100+ mph fastballs, the Vols have captured the imagination of the baseball world this season.

“I think why people are so fascinated with this team is the dominance and power,” says Burke, an ESPN and SEC Network analyst. “It’s like the UNLV basketball team and their swagger in the early 90s and the Miami football teams in the 80s. They were way more talented than you and overwhelmed you and had a bunch of fun doing it.”

Tennessee has already earned acclaim as one of the top teams in history through the regular season. But the Vols can secure their status as one of the all-time greats by winning a College World Series title.

Tennessee (53-7) was awarded the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history. The Vols will host a regional this weekend at Lindsey Nelson Stadium that includes Georgia Tech, Campbell and Alabama State. Tennessee opens against Alabama State Friday at 6 p.m. ET.

Should the Vols win, they will host a Super Regional next weekend for a return trip to Omaha.

The Vols reached the CWS last season for the first time since 2005. Many thought they may take a slight step back to rebuild, but they returned even better.

After being picked to finish fourth in the SEC East, the Vols won the SEC regular-season and tournament titles for the first time since 1995. Their 49 regular-season wins and 25 SEC wins were program records.

They lead the nation in home runs (137), slugging percentage (.613) and ERA (2.37) by a significant margin. Tennessee has eight players with double-digit home runs.

“This team is really special just from the fact they are so balanced and they are not just good at one thing. They are really good at everything,” says Kendall Rogers, managing editor at D1Baseball.com. “Their starting rotation is really good, they have nice pieces in the bullpen. I think some of the best teams ever are ultra-offensive and just OK on the mound. This team is pretty much elite everywhere.”

Although comparing eras can be tricky in any sport, Tennessee is making a strong case for the best of all time in the college game.

“I have never seen anybody better,” says ESPN analyst and former Stanford All-American pitcher Kyle Peterson. “It is just because of how elite they are on every side of the game. Their pitching is as good as anyone in the country. They have four legitimate aces and can defend at a really high level, and obviously their offense speaks for itself. Just the superlatives about this team are crazy. They don’t have weaknesses.”

Burke finds himself most amazed by Tennessee’s depth. He often looks at the stats and laughs because of the level of competition the Vols are facing and the style they project while posting the numbers.

“This baseball team has the most home runs by a mile and has the guy that throws the hardest and like three other dudes who on any given day can all hit 98 or 99,” Burke says. “They have a coach that turns a bat controversy into a cultural phenomenon and a chest bump into a fundraiser. It’s incredible.”

Taking their cue from head coach Tony Vitello, the Vols exude a swagger and confidence that thrills fans and can rankle others. They celebrate home runs with bat flips, Daddy hats and fur coats, and aren’t afraid to engage in a little verbal sparring with opponents.

“People just assume they are bad boys, but I think their attitude makes this team really good,” Rogers says. “This is a club where if someone punches them a little bit, they kind of take it personally. It’s one thing for it to be like that a couple of years ago when they were trying to establish themselves as a program. But they still have that attitude when they are really good.”

Yet in the clubhouse, the Vols have no sense of entitlement. The mix of veterans and rookies are willing to play any role asked on any given day.

“Everybody from top to bottom is rowing in the same direction,” says longtime UT baseball radio play-by-play voice John Wilkerson. “This is still, to me, a group where the sum is probably greater than its parts. They just work so well together. This team has players who have invested so much of themselves into the program. That is why they are so deserving of the spotlight that has come their way.”

The Vols have earned the admiration of Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin, who has led the Commodores to two national titles and 16 straight NCAA appearances.

“They’re attacking on the mound, they’re attacking defensively and they’re attacking offensively. Just one of the better teams that I’ve seen in the 20 years that I’ve been around, without question,” Corbin says. “Tony has done a good job with them. Their whole staff has.”

The culture change has been felt both on and off the diamond. After years of begging fans to come to games, the Vols are the hottest ticket in town. They’ve turned Lindsey Nelson Stadium into a hostile venue for opponents. And while upgrading facilities has become a high priority for UT athletics director Danny White, he’s also spending a good chunk of time these days fending off suitors of Vitello when major jobs open around the country.

“This group of juniors and seniors has changed the culture at Tennessee the last few years from a place literally nobody feared to a place that is rowdy and really, really hard to play at,” Rogers says. “To me, that is probably more important than anything they can do in the postseason. They have transformed that school into a school that loves baseball and that hasn’t always been the case.”

Tennessee will try to do what few great teams have done in the last two decades. In the history of the NCAA tournament, only one No. 1 overall seed has ever won the CWS (Miami 1999).

Although their regular-season superlatives will always have a spot in the record books, the Vols can strengthen their claim as one of the greatest of all time by hoisting the trophy in Omaha.

“I don’t see anybody beating them twice at Lindsey Nelson,” Rogers says. “Once you get to Omaha, it’s anybody’s game. But you have to like their chances. I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t win it all.”

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