KNOXVILLE — It's been a few years since the Tennessee baseball Volunteers have been in this position — heading to Hoover, Alabama, for the Southeastern Conference tournament.
The ninth-seeded Vols finished the regular season with a 38-18 record and a 14-16 mark in the league, both program highs since 2005, and will face eighth seed Auburn Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. EDT in the first round at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. The Tigers swept the three-game season series at Auburn, outscoring Tennessee 12-5.
This is the Vols' first appearance in the SEC tournament since 2016, and they are seeking their first win in the tournament since 2007 and their first league tournament title since 1995.
If they do win Tuesday, they'll match up with top-seeded Vanderbilt in a best-of-three series, while further strengthening their likely placement in the field of 64 for the NCAA tournament, which would be the program's first since 2005.
Yet second-year Tennessee coach Tony Vitello isn't looking ahead.
"Our guys are geeked up to go down there," he said recently about advancing to the SEC tournament. "You've got to earn it. There are two good programs (in the SEC) that don't go down there, and we're excited to go back down there and see what the tournament is about, because I think there's only one guy that's experienced it."
That lone player, senior Will Neely, started on the mound in the first game of the 2016 SEC tournament against LSU, holding the Tigers to one run on five hits in six innings, but Tennessee squandered a four-run lead after he was relieved and lost 5-4.
Obviously, the team is looking for more this time.
Sophomore outfielder Alerick Soularie and junior pitcher Garrett Stallings were honored Monday by the SEC.
Soularie was a first-team All-SEC selection, while Stallings was named the league's scholar athlete of the year and earned a spot on the all-defensive team.
Soularie leads the Vols in batting average (.365), runs scored (49), slugging percentage (.635) and on-base percentage (.472) and is second on the team in hits (65), home runs (11), runs batted in (45) and total bases (113). He's the first Tennessee player to earn first-team All-SEC honors since Jordan Rodgers in 2017.
Stallings is the ace of a Tennessee pitching staff that led the country with 10 shutouts in the regular season. He is 8-3 with a 3.12 earned run average while striking out 98 in a league-best 92 1/3 innings, going at least seven in eight of his 14 starts.
He twice was named SEC pitcher of the week, after tossing shutouts against then second-ranked Georgia on April 12 and No. 15 Ole Miss on May 16.
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.
Labor rally supports Volkswagen Chattanooga vote, but UAW watchdog cites union's 'culture of corruption'