OMAHA, NE. – As Tony Vitello sat down in the Charles Schwab Field press conference room, he had already put Tennessee’s season-ending loss to LSU in the past.
In his opening statement, Vitello began by acknowledging that LSU was the better team but quickly moved on.
Vitello isn’t going to dwell on the loss and surely isn’t going to remember the 2023 team on their final performance. He is going to remember the game that encapsulated what the 2023 Volunteers became.
“This thing’s already over with,” Vitello said. “And in my mind in the past, a game I’ll choose to remember this team by was yesterday (win vs. Stanford). It was the last great moment we had together. And it was also a game that was very representative of how the season went.”
Vitello is choosing to remember the group that gave him his first Omaha win on just that: a win in the College World Series.
Comeback wins were the positive theme of Tennessee’s season as the year progressed. Against Stanford, the Vols rallied from a 4-0 deficit to keep their season alive for the second week in a row. It also gave Tennessee their first Omaha win in 22 years and first under Tony Vitello.
The program took a big step because of that win. This year’s team was far from Vitello’s most talented, but it may have fought better than any of them.
The game itself was and still is so significant for Vitello and everyone involved with Tennessee baseball in the grand scheme. But it also is the one game any outsider can look at and realize what the Vols were all about in 2023.
In the win, Tennessee reinforced they were a team you could never count out.
Whether it be coming back to win a 14-inning thriller against Clemson in their own ballpark or rallying in both games they trailed 4-0 this postseason, the Vols always left everything on the field.
It was why they were one of the final six teams standing.
Even when Vitello was asked what happened with Zane Denton’s throwing error that gifted LSU their second run of the ballgame, Vitello hammered home the fact his third baseman was giving it everything he had.
“These kids are running around out there, pouring their hearts out onto the field,” Vitello said. “That’s why it’s been so damn entertaining so far.”
Any sports fan would agree that comebacks are entertaining no matter what. But throw in the fact Tennessee capped off comeback wins with walk-off home runs or historic bullpen outings? They became one of the most entertaining college baseball teams in June.
The numbers backed it up, too.
— ESPN PR (@ESPNPR) June 7, 2023
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All but one team in the nation ends their season with a loss. It’s what makes sports so sweet for the winner and so cruel for everyone else.
But even with the season ending in defeat, Vitello’s pride of what his sixth Tennessee squad had accomplished was evident.
“Started out slow. A lot of struggles in there, a lot of frustration,” Vitello said when reflecting on the early-season hardships. “But guys overcoming that and working together, coming together to make sure we have success. And that’s what occurred. So that’s what I’ll remember it (the team) by.”
After a decade-plus of being a bottom dweller in the SEC, Vitello has made Tennessee baseball a yearly contender and is well on his way to making the program a powerhouse.
Expectations were high entering the season for this year’s group. They didn’t come close to meeting those in the first two months of the season, causing a vast majority of Vol fans on social media to believe the team was going to miss the NCAA tournament.
But the 2023 Vols never mailed it in.
Even after they lost to Tennessee Tech following an uncompetitive series sweep to Arkansas, the Vols stayed the course and swept (then) first-place team Vanderbilt the following weekend, much to everyone’s shock.
Those three wins started an 11-4 run in conference play to close out the season.
But then an ugly SEC Tournament loss to Texas A&M ruined Tennessee’s chances at hosting a regional. A 2-12 road team having to win a regional away from Knoxville? Especially in the region with the fourth national seed?
Seemed far-fetched. But Tennessee did it in sweeping fashion.
Next came the Applebees-less Hattiesburg with a delay-filled Super Regional. The Vols lost the first game. They were down 4-0 in the second game.
Yet the Vols still went to Omaha.
Omaha unkindly greeted them with LSU and National Player of the Year Paul Skenes, who carved through their lineup like a knife through butter.
Facing elimination again, Tennessee was down 4-0 to Stanford. Even in the biggest stage possible, Chase Burns, Jared Dickey, Christian Moore and the rest of the 2023 Vols found a way once again.
Many things in life are figured out through trial and error. Tennessee experienced that this season. It made them better. So much better, in fact, that they became the most accomplished Vitello-led team yet.
“This was a group that helped our program improve,” Vitello said. “Did some things others have never done.”
Vitello is choosing to remember his most-accomplished team by a game in which their best and truest qualities were on full display.
Those who follow Tennessee baseball should do the same.