Neither LSU nor Tennessee will be lacking for motivation Saturday night when the Tigers and Volunteers begin their NCAA baseball tournament super regional series inside Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
Obviously a trip to the College World Series is reason enough to be energized, but there is still a "chip on the shoulder" aspect for each of these Southeastern Conference teams as they head into the opening best-of-three contest (7 p.m. on ESPN2). LSU will have significant fuel after having been swept in Knoxville during the regular season, while Tennessee's desire to succeed has roots from further back.
"A couple of years ago, there were teams coming into our place, and they would let us know that they were better than us," Vols senior left fielder Evan Russell said this week. "There was no fear whenever they came to our place, and there was no respect. That definitely leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and that's kind of why I'm a little chippy sometimes.
"It takes a lot to be respected in this league, and if you don't have respect, it leaves you a little frustrated, but I think times have changed."
If this super regional was based solely on tradition, it wouldn't even need to be staged.
LSU's six national championships in the past 30 years are the most in the sport, while Tennessee is hosting a super regional for the first time. The Vols are seeded third overall in this year's tournament, marking their first top-eight status since the NCAA field expanded to 64 teams in 1999.
Tennessee helped ignite its current 48-16 season with the three-game sweep of LSU in late March, with Tigers coach Paul Mainieri going on Baton Rouge's ESPN 104.5 FM afterward and describing Vols fans as "nasty" and claiming Tennessee players were "not handling things with a lot of class, quite frankly."
"That's not anything that I've spoken to our guys about as far as this weekend," Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said. "Our fans are trying to compete with what goes on at (Arkansas') Baum Stadium or (LSU's) Alex Box Stadium or down in Starkville. The bottom line is that you have the most rowdy and most electric fan bases in the country in the SEC, and our kids weren't able to play in front of that their first year and a half here.
"We talk about the program evolving, and that's one thing that has changed, so if you want to go back to what happened 10 or 11 weeks ago — there is always a reason someone says something. Coach Mainieri is a legendary coach, so he's not going to come up with something out of left field. It was a smaller, COVID crowd, so you could hear exactly what people were saying."
LSU first baseman Tre' Morgan was a target of taunting Tennessee fans, largely because of his 5-for-6 performance in the middle contest of the series.
After the Tigers (38-23) failed to win a game in the SEC tournament for the first time in 16 years, Mainieri announced he would be retiring at the end of the season. LSU had to defeat Oregon twice to win the Eugene Regional and was able to accomplish that in the same dramatic fashion Tennessee has often displayed this season.
So while a berth in the College World Series is enough as far as lofty stakes, this weekend's super regional has the potential of providing so much more.
"I think it's time for Tennessee to step up to the fight," Russell said, "and I don't think anybody, including our fan base, is afraid to be the villains. Starting with our coaching staff and our players, we enjoy getting in a fight, and we enjoy the close games and the competition."
Said Vitello: "Whatever mantra they have going on is their deal, and I think we're just kind of keeping it simple over here. It's another SEC weekend, which is always competitive and fun. You've got two sides who just really, really want to win."