This Week in UT Sports History is a weekly column written by RTI contributor Lexie Little
The 2019 Baseball Vols found themselves in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005 with a regional appearance in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, during the weekend. On Saturday, the Vols eliminated UNC-Wilmington with an emphatic 10-3 win to stay in the tournament, a victory capitalized by a grand slam from Connor Pavolony in the eighth inning.
The story in 2004, however, proved a little different when UNCW defeated Tennessee twice in the NCAA Kinston Regional.
Relive the losses that prompted revenge and other moments in “This Week in UT Sports History.”
June 5, 2004
The Seahawks soared past Tennessee with two home runs flying out of Grainger Stadium, leaving the Vols in the dust in the first game of the Kinston, North Carolina, regional round on June 5, 2004. UNC Wilmington won the game 8-5, with a closing double play snatching hope from the two Volunteers on base in the ninth.
Tennessee bounced back from a two-run deficit in the third inning to tie the game at 2-2 on a hit from Chase Headley. Headley, who transferred to Tennessee from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, earned the team MVP title after tallying three doubles, three home runs, and 17 RBI in 36 games during his 2004 sophomore season. He later returned to California as a major league player after the San Diego Padres drafted him in the second round of the 2005 MLB draft.
The Seahawks’ victory gave head coach Mark Scalf his 400th career win. Scalf remains at the helm for UNCW, with 2019 marking his 28th and final season. He picked up career win No. 900 in 2018.
UNCW’s win put pressure on the Vols to beat Stony Brook the following day, which they did, 1-0. Rod Delmonico’s team then sought redemption, facing the Seahawks again on June 6. Eric King led his bannermen in orange and white on offense, hitting two doubles to drive in two runs. He made his way around the bases to give Tennessee a 3-0 lead in the third inning.
However, UNC Wilmington fought back.
The Seahawks posted four runs to win the game in the bottom of the ninth on a single from Matt Poulk. A passed ball led to the tying run before intentional walks and an offensive rally led to bases loaded. Pinch runner Kenny Smith sprinted home on Poulk’s hit, ending Tennessee’s 2004 season.
The Vols bounced back a season later, making it to the College World Series.
June 3, 2007
Three years after the baseball team fell, the Lady Vols softball team shined with a gem of its own. Famed Tennessee pitcher Monica Abbott recorded 17 strikeouts against Northwestern in the NCAA Women’s College World Series (WCWS) in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in her third consecutive shutout.
Tennessee (62-6) eliminated Northwestern (52-13). The Game 12 win finally put UT in the WCWS Finals after three years inching toward the ultimate stage.
“It is really awesome because we have come so close in the past three years,” Abbott said post-game. “I am so excited this is the first time for this softball program to be a national championship contender.”
Abbott, a native of Salinas, California, set career and single-season NCAA records during her senior campaign. She earned 23 no-hitters and six perfect games en route to 189 total victories, 2,440 strikeouts, and 112 shutouts through 1,448 total innings.
“Monica Abbott is clearly at the top of her game right now,” Northwestern head coach Kate Drohan said. “It’s easy for all of us to sit here and say, ‘Don’t swing at the rise ball,’ or ‘Swing at this pitch,’ but I think Abbott’s done a nice job of getting that ball closer to the zone.”
Lady Vols co-head coach Karen Weekly called Abbott’s performance “superb” against a tough team. The 6-foot-3 pitcher earned the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year in 2007 and became Tennessee’s first softball All-American. She added Olympic Medalist to her résumé in 2008, winning a silver medal in Beijing, China, and throwing the first perfect game in Olympic history against the Netherlands.
However, Abbott did not single-handedly punch Tennessee’s ticket to the 2007 championship series. Senior left fielder India Chiles tallied her 44th stolen base with a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her right knee, putting herself in scoring position. Her fellow outfielder Tiffany Huff earned an WCWS RBI as a freshman to help the Lady Vols to victory. But it was Abbott who won the day and the attention of softball fans across the globe.
June 7, 2013
While most fans think of June as a busy month for baseball and softball as postseason play leads to championships, summer months prove important for other athletes also, with camps, training, and professional deals.
On June 7, 2013, UT tight end Mychal Rivera signed his first NFL contract with the Oakland Raiders. Oakland drafted Rivera in the sixth round of the 2013 NFL Draft after he registered 1,018 receiving yards and six touchdowns during his three seasons at Tennessee.
Rivera, a native of Los Angeles, California, signed with the University of Oregon on Feb. 6, 2008, and stayed on the West Coast. However, the request from head coach Chip Kelly to move to the offensive line prompted him to leave the program. He played for the College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, California, during the 2009 season as he sought a place to make his mark as a tight end. New UT head coach Derek Dooley’s plans for Tennessee proved a good fit, and Rivera made his way to the Southeast.
Though he earned his way to a starting job with the Raiders, his notoriety might be overshadowed by that of his sister, “Glee” actress and recording artist Naya Rivera. She gained fame as Santana Lopez on the long-running Fox musical series, though she had appeared in commercials for Kmart and on the short-lived show “The Royal Family” with star Redd Foxx. At age four, she worked with the “Sanford and Son” star who suffered a heart attack on set and died that evening, leading to the show’s eventual cancellation.
Just as his sister found her fame many years after starting her career, Rivera looks to land with an NFL team to regain his professional status. After his rookie contract with the Raiders ended, Rivera signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars. A hand injury placed him on injured reserve on Sept. 1, 2017, and the Jaguars made him a free agent on Feb. 20, 2018 when they declined the option on his contract.