Cobbservations 012: Tony Vitello believes Vols have NCAA regional potential

Cobbservations 012: Tony Vitello believes Vols have NCAA regional potential

April 12th, 2018 by David Cobb in Breaking News

Tennessee baseball coach Tony Vitello walks across the field at Lindsey Nelson Stadium during a recent scrimmage on Tennessee's campus.

Photo by David Cobb /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — Around Tennessee, even the most mundane of spring football practices trump midweek college baseball in terms of media attention. But Tennessee's Tuesday-Wednesday sweep of UT-Martin produced a couple of highlights worth revisiting.

The first was Brodie Leftridge's acrobatic grab in center field that landed him the No. 6 spot on SportsCenter's top 10 plays on Tuesday night.

The second came in Tuesday's postgame interview with first-year head coach Tony Vitello, who may have given Tennessee fans a reason to tune in to what many regarded as a throwaway year for a program facing a steep rebuild.

Tennessee has not qualified for an NCAA regional since 2005, but Vitello casually mentioned the possibility of the Volunteers ending that drought. Not in 2021 or 2020. But this year, with with a team that has just two seniors and youth throughout the pitching rotation and batting order. The Vols are 21-14 (5-7 SEC) and are ranked 61st in the RPI at the moment.

The mention of a regional came in response to a question about whether midweek starter Sean Hunley could see weekend action this year as he continues to string together an impressive freshman campaign.

 "I want to be in a regional," Vitello said. "We have the potential to be. And you're going to probably need four starters in a regional unless you're the host team or you steamroll through the thing. So there's potential right there for him."

The first part of Vitello's answer centered on the opportunity Hunley could have to start a Tuesday game in the SEC Tournament next month.

"We obviously haven't made the (SEC) tournament yet, but I fully believe we'll be there," Vitello said.

Even being among the 12 teams to qualify for the SEC Tournament would constitute a successful season for Tennessee, which missed the event last year under then-coach Dave Serrano.

But if Tennessee somehow were to qualify for an NCAA regional in Vitello's first season, he might deserve to be SEC coach of the year.

As far-fetched as the postseason talk may seem, the reality is that the Vols have only started better than their current 5-7 league record once in the last decade, and there is a precedent for teams with a losing record in SEC play making regionals.

Tennessee will need to punch above its weight during the last 18 games of the SEC slate to stick around a .500 league record, and that trek starts this weekend at college baseball's most intimidating venue.

LSU has led college baseball in attendance for 22 straight years, and Tennessee begins a three-game series at LSU Friday at 8 p.m. in a game that will be shown on the WatchESPN streaming service.

It really is unfair to expect Tennessee to make a regional this year, but the fact that Vitello believes the Vols have the potential to do it — to the point that he's thinking about what the pitching schedule would look like — adds a layer of intrigue this 2018 Tennessee baseball season.

David Cobb is the Tennessee athletics beat writer for the Times Free Press. He is stationed in Knoxville. Follow him @DavidWCobb on Twitter, or direct your emails to Oh, and go download the Times Free Press mobile app. It's free.