Tony Vitello bounced around from subject-to-subject in his opening statement following Tennessee’s, 7-3, season ending loss to Notre Dame Sunday afternoon.
The fifth-year head coach congratulated and credited Notre Dame, took blame for not putting his players in “good position to succeed” and finally paused before discussing what should stick with his team.
“Fifty-seven (wins),” Vitello said. “That’s a lot.”
You could hear the pain in Vitello’s voice. For the two super seniors sitting beside him who had played their final game in the 0range-and-white, for the Vol fans he’s continuously thanked this season and for a missed opportunity.
Tennessee’s season ending series loss was just that at its core. A missed opportunity.
The 57 wins were the most in program history and just a fraction of what Tennessee accomplished this season.
Trey Lipscomb turned in one of the best seasons in program history after waiting for his chance for three seasons. Evan Russell, Luc Lipcius and Redmond Walsh etched their names into Tennessee record books after returning for a final season.
Walsh was quick to point out that the “records do not mean nearly as much as the relationships” following Sunday’s loss. No personal record can replace team memories or success.
But Tennessee had team success that will be remembered. The Vols won their first regular-season SEC Championship since 1995. They defended that title by never trailing in a four-game SEC Tournament Championship run.
In the end, the 57 wins and drought ending championships will be an example of what could have been. Playing Billy Beane in Moneyball, Brad Pitt described it best.
“If you lose the last game of the season, nobody gives a s***.”
Tennessee seemingly left its best baseball in Hoover. The Vols swept through the Knoxville Regional but weren’t as crisp as they’ve been all season. That’s okay, as long as you win.
But Tennessee couldn’t play its B game and punch a return ticket to Omaha. Notre Dame — which felt the heartbreak of coming up one game short of the College World Series a season ago — made Tennessee pay for its mistakes.
The Vols didn’t play awful against Notre Dame, but they weren’t the well oil-machined that rolled through the SEC. Tennessee made four errors on the weekend, the final one allowing the Irish to add three eighth inning insurance runs.
Lipscomb, Drew Gilbert and Jordan Beck — the heart of Tennessee’s overpowered lineup — went zero-of-nine in the season ending loss. Freshman Chase Burns was one out away from the best start of his career. Instead, he’ll have an offseason to think about two mistakes that led to back-to-back Notre Dame home runs.
“I think we got stunned a couple of times,” Vitello said on what went wrong for his team. “That’s nothing new in my opinion. So when that happened, maybe some things showed up that you saw that weren’t crisp. But overall, I thought our guys had good vibes all weekend long for a majority of the time, and we played a really good opponent. You kind of just knew it—today was going to come down to the ninth. I think with my interference, it started earlier than that.”
The self depreciation in the final sentence of the above quote was common in Vitello’s postgame comments. The 43-year old coach is the “most passionate one of the bunch” according to Luc Lipcius.
What Vitello’s building won’t end with the 2022 Tennessee baseball team. However, this Tennessee team had the capability to win the last game of the season and they didn’t.
They certainly aren’t the first great team to experience that feeling. The NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed hasn’t won its final game since 1999, the last three No. 1 overall seeds didn’t make it to the College World Series and the 2013 Vanderbilt team — which posted the best conference record in SEC history— fell to Louisville in two games in the super regionals.
But that serves as little solace for a team that lacked any serious weakness. That talent and success makes the missed opportunity in the season ending series loss sting badly for the Tennessee’s players, its fans and the fifth-year coach who’s brought the program back to relevance.
Fifty-seven wins. But the Vols will have to wait a full year to earn the win that sends them to the mecca of college baseball. Where this year’s team seemed bound to go.