ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee baseball players huddle in the outfield while Notre Dame players celebrate in the infield following Sunday's 7-3 upset win by the Irish that ended the season for the top-ranked Volunteers.

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 7:43 p.m. on Monday, June 13, 2022, to correct the Vols' record to 56-7. It had previously stated 56-8.

Tennessee has attained athletic accomplishments the past few months that set program records and new Southeastern Conference standards as well.

But, oh, were the postseasons painful.

The higher the Volunteers and Lady Vols climbed, the harder their season-ending falls, with that no more evidenced than by Sunday afternoon's 7-3 stunning setback to Notre Dame that prevented Tennessee from a second straight journey to the College World Series. The Vols entered the NCAA baseball tournament as the top overall seed and with 53 victories, establishing an SEC record for that point in a season.

"It's the way that it goes, and it's not easy," Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said of the abrupt conclusion. "I've had people who have played baseball say, 'I can't wait to see you in Omaha,' or, 'I've made reservations in Omaha.' This is not easy. Ask Notre Dame. They came up short last year, and I'm sure it drove them crazy and may have given them a little edge.

"Ask any team in the country that gets there or has played there or has come up short — it is not automatic."

Vitello's Vols ascending to No. 1 enabled Tennessee to become the first SEC institution to occupy the top spot in the quintet of football, men's and women's basketball, baseball and softball through the years. Tennessee also became the first league school to win the men's basketball and baseball conference tournaments in the same year, but both of those feats were followed by sooner than expected NCAA tourney exits.

Here is a countdown of Tennessee's season-ending heartaches in those five sports listed above, going from least to most painful:

5. Women's basketball

Reaching the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 was as automatic as waking up in the morning back in the Pat Summitt era, as her Lady Vols advanced to that round 27 consecutive times from 1982 through 2008, winning eight national championships along the way.

Kellie Harper's third year at the helm yielded some dividends in the rebuilding process, as Tennessee went 25-9 overall, 11-5 in SEC play and earned a fourth seed in an NCAA tournament regional. An expected 80-67 dumping of 13th-seeded Buffalo was followed by a 70-67 escape of 12th-seeded Belmont before the Lady Vols fell 76-64 to top-seeded Louisville in the Sweet 16.

Going 2-1 in the NCAA tournament used to be a minimum requirement, but this was Tennessee's first Sweet 16 trip since 2016.

4. Football

The highest-scoring team in Tennessee history rewrote a lot of the record book in Josh Heupel's first year, which produced a 7-5 regular season that included a 4-4 mark in SEC games.

Tennessee had been picked fifth before the season in the Eastern Division but finished third and defeated East runner up Kentucky, 45-42, in Lexington. The Vols earned a trip to the Music City Bowl, where they were favored over a Purdue team missing its top offensive (receiver David Bell) and defensive (end George Karlaftis) players.

The Boilermakers pulled out a 48-45 overtime thriller, with Tennessee's overtime possession ending on downs after the officials did not credit running back Jaylen Wright for extending the ball across the goal line before his knees touched. The Vols had plenty of chances to avoid the overtime, surrendering 534 passing yards and squandering a 21-7 lead after the first quarter.

"I'm disappointed in the result, but the journey has been unbelievable," Heupel said. "When I took over this program 11 months ago, from where it was and where it is today are two completely — I'm just proud of these guys. They've come so far."

3. Softball

Karen Weekly's team posted a 41-18 overall record and a 15-8 SEC mark, earning the NCAA tournament's No. 11 overall seed and the right to host a Knoxville Regional for a 17th straight season.

Tennessee won its first two Knoxville Regional games, which included a 3-0 topping of Oregon State behind former Meigs County pitching standout Ashley Rogers. Weekly was hoping to punch a Knoxville Regional title ticket with Rogers again, but she was spent from the start, pulled quickly and watched from the dugout as their season came to a close with 8-3 and 3-1 losses to the same Beavers.

The Lady Vols last reached a super regional in 2019 and last ventured to the WCWS in 2015.

2. Men's basketball

Poor outside shooting doomed the Vols in early season losses to Villanova (5-of-28 from 3-point range) and Texas Tech (6-of-39), but that topic had become nonexistent when they raced through their first SEC tournament title since 1979 and routed Longwood 88-56 in the first round of the NCAA tournament for an eighth consecutive win.

When the South Region's third-seeded Vols took on 11th-seeded Michigan in the second round, they went frigid again, connecting on 2-of-18 shots from long range in a 76-68 loss.

"It's really tough," junior guard/forward Josiah-Jordan James said afterward. "We knew that we had bigger expectations. Michigan played better basketball for 40 minutes, but everybody in that locker room deserves to put their head up high for what we were able to do this season.

"It definitely hurts, and it's not a good feeling right now."

The Vols finished 27-8 and have accumulated three of their six winningest seasons in program history under current coach Rick Barnes, yet those three teams are 4-3 in NCAA tourney games.

1. Baseball

Tennessee's eye-popping 56-7 record entering last weekend's super regional included the winning of the SEC East by 10 games and the winning of the overall title by a record six contests over Texas A&M.

Of course, the Aggies are among the multiple SEC teams headed to Omaha, with that list also including Ole Miss, which received the last at-large bid into the 64-team field. The Vols swept the Rebels in Oxford by a combined 26-7 back in late March.

"Coach V told us what we did this season was absolutely amazing and that we should never forget or feel bad about how far we've come," Vols first baseman Luc Lipcius said.

The CWS starts Friday, and whether a Tennessee coach or player chooses to watch could depend on his torment threshold.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT