To appreciate the renaissance Tennessee's baseball program is enjoying under fourth-year coach Tony Vitello, which includes earning the third overall seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament, some reflection is needed.
The Volunteers were mired in mediocrity for more than a decade before Vitello's hiring in June 2017, when John Currie was nearing the midway mark of his turbulent nine-month stint as Tennessee's athletic director. Mediocrity may be the kindest way of putting it, because the Vols wound up enduring 14 consecutive losing seasons in Southeastern Conference play from 2006-19.
Tennessee was an abysmal 100-195 in SEC contests during the decade of the 2010s, and a 12-18 league record during Vitello's debut season in 2018 marked a five-game victory improvement from the year before.
"I think self-belief was a big thing when we got here that kind of needed to be transitioned," Vitello said this week on a Zoom call, "and we now have a lot of guys who believe in themselves. The proof is kind of in the pudding. (Arkansas standout and SEC pitcher of the year) Kevin Kopps is pretty difficult to hit, but our guys have at least stood in there and done some damage to the guy.
"The bottom line is that this league prepares you, and if you can hold your own in our league, then there is no reason you shouldn't believe in yourself or your team. I think that's the spot we're in right now."
Tennessee (45-16) opens NCAA play Friday night at 6 against Wright State (35-11) in the Knoxville Regional that also contains Duke (32-20) and Liberty (39-14).
Vitello regularly touts the SEC's strength — seven league teams are hosting the 16 NCAA regionals this weekend — and perhaps it's his familiarity with the conference that has allowed him to take Tennessee to places that predecessors Todd Raleigh and Dave Serrano never could. Raleigh and Serrano seemed like quality hires at the time, with Serrano having taken Cal State Fullerton to a College World Series and two more NCAA super regionals during his four seasons from 2008-11, but he was just 157-163 with the Vols from 2012-17.
Raleigh had just led Western Carolina to the NCAA tournament when he was hired by Tennessee — he went 108-113 with the Vols from 2008-11 — but Vitello did not have any head-coaching experience. Instead, Vitello had served as an assistant coach and the recruiting coordinator at Missouri (2004-10), TCU (2011-13) and Arkansas (2014-17).
D1Baseball.com ranked Vitello as the SEC's top recruiting coordinator before the 2017 season, and his strength in that area has helped Tennessee assemble the in-state likes of Jake Rucker, Evan Russell, Will Heflin, Blade Tidwell and Camden Sewell, as well as Atlanta-area talents such as Pete Derkay and Connor Pavalony. There are also Vols from all over, including Max Ferguson from Florida, Drew Gilbert from Minnesota and Liam Spence from Australia.
"The number one thing that's going on right now is that the kids we're visiting with or that are committed to us are seeing the environment that we're playing in," Vitello said. "I think we're playing in that environment because we're developing players and because we're fortunate to be at a place like Tennessee. The environments have been off the charts, especially at our home games, and they're seeing that, which can really add to a kid's experience."
Lindsey Nelson Stadium is anything but the newest and nicest stadium in the SEC, but it was hopping down the stretch this spring for top-five series against Vanderbilt and Arkansas.
"The atmosphere is really good," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said late last month. "I think they've done a nice job with creating some good atmosphere and the way they run their music and different things. They get their crowd really involved."
When Vitello was hired, he labeled Tennessee "as good of an opportunity as there is in the country" due to its league, being a state school with great in-state players, and the city of Knoxville. His 29-27 record in 2018 set a victory standard for Tennessee first-year coaches, and his 40-21 team in 2019 reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005.
Last year's team was 15-2 and had climbed as high as No. 11 in the rankings before the outbreak of the coronavirus, and the current squad is the SEC East champion and reached the conference tournament final for the first time in its current format.
"I think the coaching staff did a great job of instilling it into us that we belong here," Russell said. "They helped us have a mentality of believing in ourselves. Nobody here is shocked by what we have done this season. We competed against the best. Sometimes we've fallen short, and sometimes we've won, but there isn't anybody here who doesn't think we don't deserve this.
"Everyone expected it based on the talent we have on this team. We're just going to keep trying to prove to everyone who the Tennessee Volunteers are."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.