The Tennessee Volunteers will host an NCAA baseball tournament super regional this weekend, and that hosting aspect is not lost on anyone in orange.
Especially senior pitcher Will Heflin, who received a standing ovation during Sunday night's 3-1 regional-clinching win over Liberty.
"It was a pretty cool moment, and hopefully it serves as a little taste," Heflin said Sunday night on a Zoom call. "I want to feel that again."
On the heels of a disastrous 3-7 football season and after winter months in which COVID-related guidelines reigned supreme in the various indoor venues, Tennessee baseball has been a hot ticket for weeks. The Vols are 48-16 with a Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title and a runner-up appearance at the league tournament, and they are the third overall seed in what began as a 64-team NCAA field.
That success for a starved program that missed out on 13 consecutive NCAA tournaments from 2006-18 resulted in roughly 4,000 fans a night this past weekend during the Knoxville Regional at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
"Once they kind of opened it up and let people come, the support has been great, and how could you not fall in love with this team?" Heflin said. "This team is so infectious, and the city of Knoxville is behind us, and we don't intend on letting them down. It's an unbelievable feeling, and we've earned it.
"We're excited for the environment next weekend. I can't wait."
Tennessee is hosting the winner of the Eugene Regional between LSU and host Oregon, but that deciding game did not start until Monday night at 10.
Vols fourth-year coach Tony Vitello got a bit choked up Sunday night when interviewed by ESPN. Tennessee had not hosted a regional since 2005, and Vitello experienced a scene he could only dream about after taking over in June 2017, which followed his four-year stint as an Arkansas assistant.
"When the whole crowd is in unison, it's my favorite thing in the world, along with my family, obviously," Vitello said Sunday night. "I grew up watching Pat Summitt and watching Phillip Fulmer's football team. I'm from St. Louis, but I knew what the Vol fan base was all about. When we played here when I was at Arkansas, the atmosphere was nonexistent, so when I got the job, I envisioned this and saw it in my head every day.
"We know our stadium needs to get better, and the only way to have control over that is to play a regional here, because at that point it will have to change."
With a vacancy at Texas A&M and an impending vacancy at LSU, Vitello is expected to receive a hefty raise at Tennessee and some stadium enhancements as well, and he would like some temporary help to provide larger audiences than those of this past weekend.
"There are gaps that need to be filled for next weekend," Vitello said. "It may cost money for some construction, but there are spots. Every time someone lays eyes on this group of guys, they kind of fall in love with how they do things."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.