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Before Looking Ahead, Appreciate The Players Who Paved The Way

Tennessee’s historic 2022 season coming to an end short of the College World Series was a disappointment because of what they accomplished before they got to the NCAA Tournament.

Tony Vitello will have the Vols back. Progress isn’t always linear but it has been in the 43-year old coach’s five years in Knoxville. The Vols boast an underclassmen pitching rotation that all earned invites to the USA Collegiate Team. Freshman Blake Burke and Christian Moore are talented bats who will light up the stat sheet for two more years.

“Those guys are unbelievable,” reliever Redmond Walsh said Sunday. “Everyone on that team is pitching-wise more talented than me, so it’s going to be fun to watch them pitch for many years to come. It was an unbelievable season and it’s a tough one to end. But it’s just one of those things where I’m excited to see where those guys go next year and what’s next for all of them.”

However, Sunday marked the last time a number of beloved Vols will suit up in the orange-and-white. Super seniors Walsh, Luc Lipcius and Evan Russell were a part of Tennessee when the program was an afterthought in the SEC.

Pitching coach Frank Anderson thought Walsh was a team manger when he first got to Knoxville. Walsh finished his career tied as Tennessee’s save leader. Russell and Lipcius overtook Todd Helton as Tennessee’s all-time home run king with the first baseman edging out Russell by one long ball.

They were integral in Tennessee going from the outhouse to SEC Champs. From a program whose rivals didn’t think twice about them to a program who caused mass celebration across the Southeast when their season ended short of their goals.

“The records are whatever, but it’s just this group of guys that was one of my favorites of all- time. That’s the hardest thing to give up,” Lipcius said Sunday. “It’s really hard to believe it’s over. That’s the great thing about being on a team like this: the relationships are never over. I know I’ve got their backs. I know they have mine. We’ll be in contact and I can’t wait to follow all of their great careers.”

More From RTI: Missed Opportunity Punctuates Vols’ Historic Season

Then there’s the guys who committed to play for Tennessee and Vitello before the program rose into the top group in the SEC.

Players like Connor Pavolony, Max Ferguson and Jake Rucker said goodbye last season, but the last holdovers from Vitello’s first recruiting classes have likely played their last games in Tennessee uniforms.

Jordan Beck, Drew Gilbert, Blade Tidwell and Trey Lipscomb all have eligibility remaining but baseball futures are in the professional ranks. Beck, Gilbert and Tidwell project as first round picks while Lipscomb shouldn’t have to wait much longer to hear his name called.

Someone will select Jorel Ortega and Camden Sewell in the 20-round MLB Draft, but there short term future is filled with more question marks than those previously listed.

Still, the end of the 2022 season marks the end of the first era of Tony Vitello’s tenure in Knoxville. There’s no signs that the winning is going to slow down, but the players who bought into the vision of a program without the success of its SEC rivals will no longer lead that charge.

The days of unheralded recruits — mixed with a few blue chip recruits — from the Volunteer State and across the southeast being the face of Tennessee’s program is over.

“(Vitello) always has your back and it’s been that way from day one,” Walsh said. “Me and Luc were I think the last two kids to commit in our class and probably shouldn’t have even played here. But that guy over there for some reason gave us a shot and we’ve just been able to be in big-time opportunities and kind of turn the program around. Just from that, I can’t thank him enough, the coaching staff enough, my teammates—I mean the years go by and the teams get closer and closer the better you are, and this year, man it’s going to be the hardest one to leave.”

Walsh won’t and shouldn’t be the only one with that sentiment. Before Vol fans turn their heads to the 2023 season and what’s next, they should appreciate what’s behind them. A group of kids — villains on the field — but excellent representatives of their community off it, turned around a program and took it to heights unimaginable five years prior.

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