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Everything Tony Vitello Said After Tennessee Clinched SEC Championship

Photo By Emma Ramsey/Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee baseball clinched a share of the SEC Championship on Saturday afternoon when they completed the weekend sweep of South Carolina and Vanderbilt took the series finale over Kentucky.

With the win, Tennessee finished the regular season 46-10 (22-8 SEC) and earned the top-seed in next week’s SEC Tournament in Hoover.

Following the game, Tennessee coach Tony Vitello discussed the win over South Carolina, winning the SEC and much more. Here’s everything Vitello said.

More From RTI: Watch Tennessee Baseball Celebrate Winning The SEC Championship

On what was working so well for Zander Sechrist

“His approach or attitude. I’d say that word delicately, if that’s the right way to say it. Because I mean the kid’s attitude, he’s about as enjoyable to be around as anyone I’ve ever coached on gameday and not on game day or out of uniform. But he wasn’t happy [when] he came out of the game as early as he did last week. And you know, we’re all teammates but we’ve got different roles. So coaches go with decisions and when players get their opportunity, they have to go out there and compete. And man, obviously we owe a lot to Stam (Chris Stamos) and to [Drew] Beam. But I would say out of the three guys, the one guy that showed right out of the gate that he was going to throw that thing with conviction and that he was going to hunt down strike one was Zander, and he didn’t want anyone taking the ball out of his hand. And I’m glad we won the game because an answer I would’ve had to make in here if it didn’t go our way is, ‘Why’d you take that guy out of the game?’ He was rolling along pretty good. He hasn’t been to the seventh inning yet and we’re really, really confident in those guys that were down there, including Kirby [Connell]. And it could have even been guys after that. So, a good team win and a phenomenal outing by him.”

On winning a share of the SEC title

“Yeah, I mean that’s a lot to take in. That’s very difficult to do. Congrats to anybody in this league that finished with a winning record. It ain’t easy. And I think one thing that’s reflected with this week in Hoover is if you can finish in the top four, you’ve set yourself up pretty nicely. And Arkansas and [Texas] A&M have done that, and obviously Kentucky had a phenomenal year. It’s kind of weird how it worked out. I remember driving back from South Carolina and we finished in first place in the division (SEC East) in ‘21, I think, because Kentucky beat Vanderbilt. And then, you come to the park today and we were hoping [Vanderbilt’s] lefty [JD Thompson] could stick it on Kentucky because he threw very well against us. He was really good against us last week, and of course we have to do our job and win the game. And I’m proud of our guys. There wasn’t a lot of chatter about any of that stuff going on. I didn’t hear any scores or anything going like that. The guys were just focused on the task at hand. And if you do that, if you have the right approach, more times than not, the result will work itself out.”

On what it says about Zander to throw with conviction in a big game

“I think he’s evolved a lot as a player. I mean look at what he’s been a part of just in our dugout, in the locker room, and then on the field, and then he’s been asked to do more and more as each day or year has gone by for him, and he’s shown consistent improvement. It says a lot about his work ethic and his character. But I think the biggest thing is, like I was kind of alluding to today, is just his determination. I think he’s a lot more determined than maybe you’d recognize because there’s not as many fist pumps and things like that. So what you want out of a guy when he enters – you know your hallways – become better each year but it doesn’t always work out that way. You have to evolve as a player, and he’s done that, and he’s got more time and more room to continue to do that.”

On what gives him confidence in Aaron Combs in late-game scenarios

“I think the biggest thing is you want to know the guy wants to be out there. And I think he’s dying to be out there, and, just to peel back the curtain, we were gonna go to Kirby [Connell], and he came down the end of the dugout and kind of gave [me] the devil eyes. Like, ‘If you take me out, you’re gonna have to buy new tires.’ So we let him roll with it, and he’s not the only one but it’s a lot of times he’s out there, you almost have to calm him down. So that’s the biggest thing. And then he’s one of a handful of guys that I think his stuff is different from the others – which is nice, we’ve got a lot of guys that kind of compliment each other – but just like [Andrew] Behnke in a big situation last night, they got the stuff and the willingness to be out there to where you trust him. And now because of last year, those spots we put him in, he can say he has been in about every spot you can imagine, including – I mean that K-State game was as hyped up as any game we had played to that point – and he started that game. So, [he’s a] valuable pitcher, and I like coaching that dude. I like being on a team with that guy.”

On if they change the mindset or approach heading into the postseason any

“I think we talked out there a little bit, we want to wait and see when we’re supposed to play on Wednesday, and you always want to compete when you step on the field but, but we want to manage it the right way. We’re in a different spot than we were last year for sure. And then this year’s unique under its own. And I guess what I’m getting at is we’ve already met as a coaching staff and there’s certain things we want to make sure we accomplish while we’re there. So, you’d like to win, but we’d also like to check those boxes.”

On what the fans mean to him and the rest of the team

“I mean it was a weekend where you could tell there was a difference being made by the fans. Especially the first two games. Today was not as explosive as a day, so it’s not like they weren’t involved, but you really noticed them giving us an edge the previous two nights. And I just congratulated Vince [Ferrara] and John [Wilkerson] because they’re a part of this, too. It takes a village, especially if you’re kind of coming from– we’re pretty blessed, so there’s no sympathy needed – but it’s not like we have the biggest stadium or the best tradition or this or that.”

“So in order to make progress, like I said, it takes a village and there’s an awful lot of people that have helped, including you all have been good to us. Knock on all kinds of wood. We appreciate that. We recognize that. We don’t take it for granted and it’s nice when the guys can celebrate it. It was kind of awkward. They went in the lounge and then they went back out there. But it was nice and we’ll see them in Hoover. I mean the fan bases in Hoover kind of stand out a little bit. They all go down there, they all talk smack and there’s a bunch of them because it’s the SEC but there are about three or four that tend to have more people than others and I’m proud that we’re in that group.”

On how to keep the eye on the prize so they don’t have an early exit from Hoover

“I don’t know, to be honest with you. I’m kind of worn out. I think the eye on the prize is for 24 hours, let these guys be kids and then, again, when you finish in the top four it’s a little easier to manage the situation. But this has been a group that’s, according to Drew Gilbert, which is crazy for him to use the word mature. He said when he watches this team, they seem more mature and kind of keep tunnel vision on what the next thing is in front of them. So I think it’s just that. So you get 24 hours to do that stuff and then if you’re packing, you’re packing. If we’re practicing down there, you practice and then we don’t know our opponents so it’s just be ready for whatever our next task is.”

On AJ Russell’s status entering the SEC Tournament

“He threw out here and it’s been a question asked frequently and he’s had to— obviously if he’s at a 100% or at his best, there would’ve been a time we would’ve utilized him this week. But we want to proceed, I don’t want to see with caution, but with proper sequence and I think he’s anxious and tired of being held back even though he may not be at a 100%. So he’ll pitch for us at some point. I think the key for him and also our team to recognize is he’s not coming to save the day. Right now, we’ve got a really good group we trust. There’s even some guys you could say they’re probably thinking they’re underutilized. So when he gets into the mix, he is not going to be built up to start or anything crazy. We’re looking for five, maybe six outs a week that can support our staff  if he’s called on to do so. And I think he will be ready to do that. I know he is anxious to do that.”

On Dalton Bargo having success at the plate entering the postseason

“Good, but he believes in himself and we do too. And those guys, I mean again, to peel back the curtain maybe more than I should. We’ll visit with them and they shouldn’t feel like the frequent changes come because they did something wrong so we’re trying some other guy. It’s (because) we have the flexibility to go into a game if we really wanted to, we had the flexibility if the DH spot gets four at-bats to do four different guys just because one’s a bunt situation and then one, we need the ball put in play and one where it’s a lead off (and) we’re looking for a guy just to get on base but he’s got gifted hands and the one thing about him today, whether he would’ve got good feedback or not— because the first ball he drove well and it got caught. He was moving a lot slower today instead of running at the thing and Blake Burke hits that home run last night just with a good easy swing and it’ll be on me to follow through on it. Those guys need video clips of that to see that pace is baseball speed. Just because the guy’s throwing harder or he has got good stuff, you try and go faster, you’re going to get in trouble and we saw good stuff this weekend. So it’s good preparation for Hoover because it’s going to be— I’d rather be a fan than a coach in Hoover because it’s a show. It’s going to be nonstop stuff and obviously a lot of good players in one area”

On what AJ Russell would do for the depth of the pitching staff

“Make you feel better about various scenarios when we plan as coaches. I hate saying it, but worst case scenarios. If you look at this weekend, it went pretty well. Each guy really did his job about as good as he can. No one was perfect. Beam great outing but wasn’t great. Stam(os) did his job but wasn’t great. Causey never really got into flow. I guess Zander was probably the best guy on the whole weekend along with Combs, but no one was perfect and we were able to piece that thing together without going Loy left on left. We really wanted Phillips to face Messina because he’s so good. Both guys are so good. So it just adds depth and he started and relieved. So when you get into situations where you play more games than three, you got a starter. So hopefully that’s a decent answer.”

On balancing trying to win the SEC Tournament with preparing for a regional

“I caution to say it like this, but it’s kind of like certain games we play in the middle of the year and maybe like opening weekend. We talked about, you really want to go down there and win on opening day, but you got to come out of there with two wins and along the way your starters are only built up to a certain pitch count. So you kind of got this mapping out scheme of we want to do this and, Bradke (Lohry) is starting, but we also want to use a guy on the infield in this situation, get Dean (Curley) some reps. So I think it’s possible to scheme and check some boxes and still go compete. Again, I’ll use that Dallas tournament. AJ Russell, speaking of him. He was frustrated we took him out, but he kind of hit his pitch count on the limit. So if you’re scheming ahead of time, whether it’s pitch counts or making sure a guy gets an outing or an at-bat, at no point should that guy or you not be pushing forward to win the ball game. But I think you can do both. And because it’s not a do or die tournament, fortunately because our guys having some success, I think you can do that.”

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