A Tennessee baseball team that had thrived on a wide range of emotions all season discovered a new one late Sunday afternoon in Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
The top-seeded Volunteers were one out away from taking a 3-1 lead into the seventh-inning stretch against Notre Dame, but the Fighting Irish hit consecutive two-out home runs off freshman pitcher Chase Burns to grab a 4-3 lead. From there, Tennessee unraveled in a 7-3 setback that stunningly ended a successful season without a journey to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.
"It's really hard to believe it's over," shell-shocked Tennessee first baseman Luc Lipcius said afterward in a news conference. "I don't think I've fully processed that this is it yet. It's going to take some time. It's definitely emotional and a lot to think about.
In finishing with a 57-9 record that set a single-season record for program victories, the Vols were unable to shake the mounting curse of being the NCAA tournament's No. 1 seed. Not since the 1999 Miami Hurricanes has the top seed prevailed in Omaha, with Tennessee becoming the second straight top seed from the Southeastern Conference that couldn't get out of its super regional.
Last season's top overall seed, Arkansas, humiliated North Carolina State 21-2 in its best-of-three super regional opener before losing a pair of one-run games.
"Notre Dame gets to go to Omaha and enjoy that and will probably do some damage, because that's a really tough group," Vols coach Tony Vitello said. "What needs to stick with our guys once time passes — they say time heals all wounds, but I don't know who 'they' are — is that 57 is a lot. That's a lot.
"This is a team with a bunch of good kids and a couple of maniacs out there. They did some extraordinary things."
Tennessee was seven outs away from advancing when David LaManna connected on a two-run homer to right field that pulled the Irish (40-15) into a 3-3 tie. That deadlock lasted one batter, as Jack Brannigan followed LaManna with a solo shot to left-center to put Notre Dame up 4-3 and end what for most of the day had been a stellar Burns outing.
Vitello admitted he should have removed Burns during the Brannigan at-bat, which included a foul that had home-run depth.
Former Cleveland High School standout Camden Sewell replaced Burns and got the Vols out of the seventh, but the eighth began with Sewell hitting a batter and third baseman Trey Lipscomb committing a throwing error. Those two runs would score when Carter Putz connected on a double to right-center off Kirby Connell, leaving Tennessee fans even more stunned than the inning before.
Notre Dame reliever Jack Findlay pitched the final five innings and allowed just one hit while striking out four batters. He recorded his 15 outs in just 16 batters faced, wrapping up his magnificent showing by getting Evan Russell to ground into a game-ending double play.
"He was really, really good today," Lipcius said. "His fastball was moving, and he was putting it where he wanted to. He was just on today. He got us out."
Despite the best-of-three series being squared entering Sunday's finale, the Vols had the momentum of Saturday's 12-4 shellacking and picked up where they left off when Burns worked a 1-2-3 first and Lipcius homered to right-center for a quick 1-0 advantage. Seth Stephenson had an RBI single to left in the second inning and added an RBI double down the left-field line in the fifth to help the Vols build their 3-1 lead.
The Lipcius homer gave him a program-record 40th for his career and extended Tennessee's single-season homer mark to 158.
"The records don't mean nearly as much as the relationships," Vols relief pitcher Redmond Walsh said. "I would give up every save just to have one more game with them or one more practice — just to have another day where we can go out and be a team."