The eve of the NCAA baseball tournament super regional between Tennessee and Notre Dame was filled with plenty of praise and even more confidence.
Media sessions involving the Volunteers, the top overall seed in this year's 64-team field, and the Fighting Irish were conducted Thursday to preview Friday night's opener (6 on ESPN2) of the best-of-three series inside Lindsey Nelson Stadium. Notre Dame coach Link Jarrett offered quite the monster compliment when he described the Vols as "probably the best team I've seen in any college sport this year."
With his 56-7 team having already set a Southeastern Conference record for victories (53) entering an NCAA tournament — and leading the nation with 150 home runs and a 2.38 earned run average — Tennessee coach Tony Vitello was asked about Jarrett's comment.
"Fortunately our guys played well down the stretch," Vitello said. "Everybody loves to point out a blip on the radar screen at Kentucky, but we told our players in the outfield up there that weekend was going to serve them well, and I feel like it has contributed to this kind of topic."
Notre Dame is 38-14 and coming off a triumph in the Statesboro Regional, defeating Texas Tech twice and Georgia Southern once. The Irish are seventh nationally in ERA (3.82) and gave up just seven runs in last weekend's three wins.
Austin Temple, who is 4-1 with a 3.46 ERA, is scheduled to start Friday for the Irish.
"Their pitching staff is going to be really good," Vols first baseman Luc Lipcius said. "They've got a lot of veterans, but I don't think it's anything we haven't seen before. This past weekend, we saw a bunch of top-tier arms. We've got to keep doing our thing and be confident in what we have.
"It's not a different game in the super regionals. It's still baseball. We've got to play like we have been, and we'll be fine."
Sounding equally as confident Thursday was Notre Dame left fielder Ryan Cole, who said, "If I were them I would be a little scared. I think we're a very dangerous team."
Tennessee will start Blade Tidwell (3-1, 2.00) on Friday and is coming off a Knoxville Regional that contained the tricky tandem of Campbell and Georgia Tech. Each of those teams jumped out to 4-0 leads against the Vols last weekend before Tennessee regrouped to win 12-7 and 9-6.
Last weekend was in sharp contrast to the SEC tournament the week before, when the Vols rolled to four victories in Hoover, Alabama, by the combined score of 35-10.
"We know that no matter what happens throughout a game, we're going to get you," Lipcius said. "This past weekend was a phenomenal opportunity for us to show that even though we are down, we can still come back. It prepares us going forward.
"We don't have that, 'Oh, we're just going to beat everybody by 10.' We now have that prep that we know we can be behind and still come back."
Vitello said Thursday that SEC pitcher of the year Chase Dollander will start Saturday afternoon's second game, which is all the Vols are guaranteed at this point. Win twice or lose twice this weekend, these will be the final games this season for Tennessee in the Volunteer State.
"It's going to be an awesome weekend for sure," Vols second baseman Jorel Ortega said.
Lipscomb a finalist
Tennessee senior third baseman Trey Lipscomb was named Thursday among the five finalists for the 35th Dick Howser Trophy, which is considered by many to be college baseball's most prestigious award given that it includes leadership and moral character qualities in addition to on-field performance.
Lipscomb, who is hitting .363 with 21 home runs entering the super regional, is the first Tennessee player to be named a Howser Trophy finalist since Chris Burke in 2001, and Todd Helton became the only Vol to ever win the award in 1995.
Joining Lipscomb as finalists are Oregon State pitcher Connor Hjerpe, Texas first baseman Ivan Melendez, Georgia Tech catcher Kevin Parada and Clemson third baseman Max Wagner.