Vols in rare company with third straight super regional berth

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee baseball players celebrate after Sunday night's 9-2 downing of Charlotte that clinched the Clemson Regional for the Volunteers.

It wasn't that long ago when Tennessee defined futility in college baseball.

When Tony Vitello guided the Volunteers to the 2019 NCAA tournament in his second season, it marked the program's first appearance in the 64-team field since 2005. During that lengthy drought, the Vols won just one Southeastern Conference tournament game and didn't even qualify for their league event nine times.

Fast forward to present day, and Tennessee is in the very rare air of three consecutive NCAA super regional appearances after claiming this past weekend's Clemson Regional as the second seed. The Vols sandwiched 8-1 and 9-2 beatings of third-seeded Charlotte around a 6-5 thriller over the top-seeded Tigers in 14 innings.

"I think once it starts that it's a series," Vitello said Sunday night after Tennessee won a ninth consecutive NCAA regional contest. "It's an SEC-type series. You don't even know who the options are as far as playing, but at this point, you're going to play a really good team, and it's going to be really competitive.

"So when it starts, you're just trying to win a series."

A program once known for its early summer vacations is now recognized for its consistent success, with only Texas having clinched three straight super regional berths along with Tennessee and with Stanford attempting to join them late Monday night. The Vols swept LSU two years ago in their super regional to advance to the College World Series, where they were ousted by Virginia and Texas, but last year's team was stunned in the super regional by Notre Dame.

Tennessee entered last June's super regional at Lindsey Nelson Stadium with a 56-7 record and as the NCAA tournament's top overall seed, but this year's team had more of an uphill climb. When Tennessee Tech came to Knoxville on April 18 and applied a 12-5 thumping, the Vols were in NCAA tourney bubble territory with a 23-14 record that included a 5-10 SEC mark.

The Vols rebounded by going 11-4 during the back half of their league schedule but still had to travel last week to a regional hosted by Clemson, which was the No. 4 overall seed.

"This needs to be enjoyed more because it was challenging," Vitello said. "We've said in team meetings that when things are difficult and you have to really work for something, it makes it sweeter. I also think it prepares you a little bit better.

"Because of some of the obstacles that these guys have had to climb over, go around and go through, it has made them stronger, and I think we're still getting stronger."

Tennessee's super regional destination will be revealed by NCAA officials Tuesday morning at 10, with the Vols either hosting or traveling to Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles were seeded second in the Auburn Regional, which it won on Monday afternoon with an 11-7 downing of Penn.

Vitello stated his case for Knoxville following Sunday night's win, and the Vols do have a better RPI than USM, but Tennessee has suddenly won five of its last seven games away from Lindsey Nelson Stadium, too.

"We're in the postseason now," Vols second baseman and Clemson Regional MVP Christian Moore said. "You win and you advance. You lose and you go home."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.