Tennessee has played in a lot of different settings this baseball season, but not one this emotion-packed.
For the Volunteers to reach the College World Series for the fifth time in school history and for a second occasion in the past three years, they must take down a Southern Miss team and fan base eager to honor retiring Golden Eagles coach Scott Berry. Berry was associate head coach in 2009, when the program made its lone CWS trip to Omaha, Nebraska, and he inherited the reins the next season.
The success the Golden Eagles have enjoyed under Berry's tutelage is reflected by seven consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and in being the only Division I program to post seven straight 40-win seasons, which obviously excludes the COVID-shortened year of 2020.
"I definitely respect what they're doing with that, but for us, it's about not paying attention to the alternative storylines," Tennessee fifth-year senior left fielder Griffin Merritt said this week in a news conference. "I have Twitter, too, and there was a lot of talk this week of who's getting to play where. For us, it's just another baseball game.
"It's a three-game series, and we need to win two."
The super regional in Hattiesburg begins Saturday afternoon at 3, with the opener being televised by ESPNU.
There has been plenty of conversation about Pete Taylor Park housing this matchup, with the NCAA tournament committee having revealed that decision Tuesday morning after the Vols (41-19) won the Clemson Regional and the Golden Eagles (45-18) claimed the Auburn Regional as second seeds. Pete Taylor Park has a listed capacity of 4,300 but is expected to hold more than 6,000 this weekend, though Tennessee is receiving just 600 tickets as the visiting team.
"You get to this time of year, and nobody is not going to be pouring his heart and soul out on the field," Vols coach Tony Vitello said. "You can come up with whatever set of circumstances you want, and everyone is going to give it their best go. It's also a baseball game, so a lot of crazy things can happen."
Southern Miss has an absolute workhorse of a starting pitcher with Tanner Hall, a junior right-hander who is 12-3 in 17 starts this season with a 2.08 earned run average. The 6-foot-1, 186-pounder from Zachary, Louisiana, has amassed 119 strikeouts in 108 innings, with his inning count 30 more than Tennessee's top pitcher in that category, junior Chase Dollander.
Hall threw 123 pitches in last Friday's NCAA regional opener against Samford and came back Monday to hurl another 30 against Penn.
"He's had a bunch of success, and we respect him," Merritt said. "In the SEC, we've faced a lot of Friday night type arms, and sometimes you just have to weather the storm a little bit. I hope we put up 20 runs on him, but nobody has, so I'm not going to think that's exactly what we're going to do. We're going to have to fight and compete."
Said Vitello: "He takes advantage of hitters who are overzealous. He really preys on hitters who are overzealous."
Hall, according to the Southern Miss game notes, will pitch in Sunday’s second contest, with Billy Oldham (8-3, 4.33) handling the opener. The Vols are scheduled to throw Andrew Lindsey (3-2, 2.40) on Saturday and Dollander (6-5, 4.50) on Sunday.
Though Tennessee players will encounter a lot more yellow than orange in the crowd this weekend, they will not be lacking for motivation, either. Omaha is incentive enough, and memories remain vivid of last year's Vols failing to get there as the NCAA tournament's top overall seed.
"Whatever competitive edge you're looking for has to be based off what your team has become throughout the year," Vitello said. "There were some teams last year that served as a good example for us now of maybe the best path from A to B isn't in a straight line, and for us there is no way it's been a straight line."
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