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Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee's Evan Russell celebrates with teammates during his three-homer performance against Vanderbilt on April 17.

A significant flip of the bat. Striking a pose as your teammates race out of the dugout. Taking time to circle the bases.

Tennessee's baseball team has provided one memorable moment after another in surging to a 48-16 record and a host role in this weekend's NCAA super regional against longtime power LSU (38-23). Excessive celebrations have accompanied many of these frenzied situations, which have led to mixed reactions from those not clad in orange.

"There are a lot of people on social media who don't appreciate the way that a couple of our guys have handled success, but it is pure emotion out here," Tennessee left fielder Evan Russell said Wednesday. "You've got two teams that are basically fighting for their lives and fighting for their programs to stay alive, and whenever a moment like that takes place — Drew Gilbert will never experience that moment again, no matter where he's playing in pro ball. He won't ever experience that moment again.

"There are a lot of people who will never experience that moment, and it is pure emotion, and it's what makes this game different from professional ball. These are 19- and 20-year-old kids who a year ago didn't know where their fit was going to be. Drew Gilbert, as talented as he is, was fighting for a spot last year and was not given anything. We put in a lot of time to get in these moments, and in a lot of these moments, we fail."

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Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee's Max Ferguson turns to the Lindsey Nelson Stadium crowd after hitting a walk-off home run in an 8-7 triumph over top-ranked Arkansas on May 15.

The Volunteers were already on their way to a solid season when Russell took it up a notch with three home runs in an 8-4 win over visiting Vanderbilt on April 17. The biggest of the three was a grand slam in the eighth inning that erased a 4-3 deficit.

Max Ferguson's three-run homer on May 15 catapulted Tennessee to an 8-7 walk-off victory against top-ranked Arkansas, but Gilbert topped both Russell and Ferguson last Friday night with a ninth-inning grand slam that enabled the Vols to escape Wright State 9-8 in the Knoxville Regional.

Were each of those celebrations excessive? Yep. Did Vols coach Tony Vitello have a problem with them? Nope.

"These kids have earned the right to be who they are, and I think that's why they've kind of created their own little thing," Vitello said. "We have very high standards like all the other teams in our league — in the classroom and how they act off the field and how they are as teammates and picking up trash and other little things. If you check all those boxes, then you get a little bit of latitude from our staff to be who you are."

Vitello is 42 years old, which means he's twice the age of Tennessee's older players and that he's had time to soften his stance on the emotional aspect of the sport.

"I come from a family where my dad was, 'Put your head down and run,' and that you shouldn't celebrate and that you're blue collar and should outwork everybody," Vitello said. "I would like to think that's who I am deep down, but I also know that things have changed a little bit. My younger reaction to Jose Bautista throwing his bat dang near the other team's dugout was, 'That ain't right, and somebody needs to punch that guy,' which actually happened.

"But as far as he hit that ball in that situation — there are only a few people on the planet who can do that, so you need to celebrate it. I don't encourage it, and I don't remember a time when I yelled at a guy for something too crazy, but I guess I have yelled at a couple of guys to run down the line."

There is the timeworn adage "act like you've been there before," but this Tennessee team has racked up accomplishments the program hasn't experienced in 15 years.

"Even if I'm in the other dugout, I can appreciate that happening to someone and how they have that right to celebrate," Russell said. "That's what makes the fan bases so good and the competition so good in college baseball. These kids are really into the game and want to succeed, and when they do, they let everyone know."

 

Improvements coming

Tennessee athletic director Danny White said Wednesday that he has met multiple times with Vitello in regards to expanding and enhancing Lindsey Nelson Stadium. White added there is no bigger discrepancy within his athletic department than between the success of Vitello's Vols and the facility in which they play.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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