Tony Vitello completes staff as Tennessee baseball finds fall rhythm

Tony Vitello completes staff as Tennessee baseball finds fall rhythm

October 13th, 2017 by David Cobb in Sports - College

Tennessee catcher Benito Santiago takes a swing during Tennessee's win over Auburn on Friday.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — Tony Vitello said if he were to divide his first fall practice session as Tennessee's baseball coach into three parts, the first would be excitement.

"Just the honeymoon effect of everyone wanting to please everybody and getting a fresh start," Vitello said after a recent practice.

If only the honeymoon lasted forever.

The initial glamour wore off as September's practice schedule wore on, ushering in what Vitello described as "a lull of that excitement going away and a severe lack of execution." But as the Volunteers continue working toward the Oct. 24-27 intrasquad Orange and White World Series that will close their fall schedule, they're now in a third phase, Vitello said.

"Now I think what we've gotten is some guys that are jacked up to be out here every day," he said. "And they're also doing better about the things we're trying to teach them out here."

Tennessee's latest signing class has stayed mostly intact through the transition to Vitello, who was hired in July after Dave Serrano resigned at the conclusion of his sixth season leading the program. Hunter Wolfe, a shortstop who played previously at Walters State Community College, was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 12th round this year and is not listed on Tennessee's fall roster. Wolfe appears to be the only loss from the class, which Vitello continued adding to after taking the job.

The majority of last year's team also opted to return, despite the coaching change. Among players from the 2017 spring roster who did not graduate, only four are not listed on the fall roster: pitcher Jacob Westphal, who appeared in seven games last year; outfielder Dom Thornton, who batted .233 in 34 starts; reserve catcher Danny Sirven; and pitcher Zach Warren, who signed with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Vitello has a group of 22 commitments for the next recruiting class, according to Perfect Game USA. Those players can begin signing with Tennessee next month, but they won't be on the roster until the 2019 season. That leaves Vitello with a 2018 roster formed almost entirely of players Serrano recruited.

Sophomores Garrett Stallings and Zach Linginfelter and junior Will Neely return to anchor the pitching staff, which will now be overseen by former Oklahoma State head coach Frank Anderson.

"I think with the combination of who our pitching coach is and that there are some good arms there," Vitello said, "I think we have enough on the mound to compete in the SEC."

Offensively, senior outfielder Brody Leftridge and senior catcher Benito Santiago have a combined 660 career at-bats. Along with a group of sophomores who played key roles for last year's team, they will likely form the core of the lineup.

"There's enough in that offense with the way we approach things to be really aggressive and have our days where maybe we score more runs than the other guys and not necessarily outpitch them," Vitello said.

The Volunteers have not appeared in an NCAA regional since 2005 and have only qualified for the Southeastern Conference tournament three of the past 10 seasons.

Vitello, who is in his first head coaching job after stints as an assistant at Missouri, TCU and Arkansas, has assembled a staff that is a blend of youthful exuberance, veteran prowess and professional pedigree.

Tennessee announced last week that former Vols and major league catcher J.P. Arencibia is joining the program as a student manager. Arencibia will work as the team's bullpen coach while he finishes his undergraduate degree after retiring from playing in 2016.

Anderson was the pitching coach at Houston the past five seasons after leading Oklahoma State for nine years prior. He was the pitching coach for Texas when the Longhorns won the 2002 College World Series.

Josh Elander, who worked with Vitello at Arkansas last season as a volunteer assistant, will coach hitting and serve as the recruiting coordinator.

"That guy has been preparing for this his entire life," Vitello said of Elander. "I felt I was doing the same. Coach Anderson is as experienced as anyone. Really, the whole staff, I think, is as confident as we can be.

"The fact that we're all on the same page ... is most important. The plan we have out here for these guys is a good one. It's just about getting it to them and getting them the information the right way."

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