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Everything Tennessee HC Tony Vitello Said Before College World Series Opener

Tony Vitello against Oklahoma in Arlington // Photo via UT Athletics

Tennessee baseball coach Tony Vitello met with the media in Omaha on Thursday afternoon a day before the Vols take on Florida State in their College World Series opener.

Vitello discussed having past experience at the College World Series, Tennessee’s pitching plan for the Florida State game and much more. Here’s everything Vitello said.

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Opening Statement

“Seeing some of the local media, we did have a few fans. I’m not sure how they let people in the stadium, what the requirement is during BP, but we did have some ball fans out there, or kids too. Just happy that people get to experience this.

The competition, juices get flowing. You kind of forget about that. At some point you have to make sure that you enjoy it if you are a participant, but more than anything, I’m thankful and happy that all the folks that rally around our program get to be here.”

On if the staff and team familiarity in Omaha helps them at all

“I think so. You know, all of us want to look at the itinerary and make it as productive for our guys as possible and try and put the guys in a position to succeed. But at some point the umpire is going to yell out, “Play ball,” and then it’s going to turn into warfare, whatever cliche you want to throw out there, and you’re going to see nothing but good players.

It helps. There are teams that have come here their first time and done well, and there are teams that maybe had a less talented roster but done better because, you know, that experience.

I think it helps in a lot of different ways that are away from the field, but again, once the game starts, you just have to play ball. And how much of a factor all those items have, I don’t know which time you enjoy it more, your first or second. Now you know downtime, how it works out, how you’re going to mix in family time and things like that. I don’t know how much it benefits when the game or competition starts, but it certainly all comes a little smoother I think as you experience it.”

On having good team chemistry with so many talented players

“Well, I think some of those guys have put themselves into that position, whereas maybe they weren’t there a year ago or earlier in the year.

So it kind of starts with that, when your best or most talented players are pushing themselves to get more physical or to get better mentality-wise or mature and elevate their status as an individual, the team gets better. With this group in particular, I can’t take any credit for, like, making the personalities work.

I’m from St. Louis. Joe Torre goes from there to the Yankees, and it’s a little better roster, and it really becomes about managing egos and when to tell Marino Rivera to go in the game.

With this, I can’t even say I’ve done any of that. These guys took ownership of that locker room in August, the most or quickest I’ve ever seen a freshman class merge with the older guys, and then the older guys have been about as willing as any group I’ve been around for leadership: Tell me where you want me to play, when you want me to pitch, how you want me to do this, and I’ll go do it. It’s been a unique group, and it’s made work fun.”

On the difficulty of getting her and how the No. 1 overall seed hasn’t won it all since 1999

“Sure, it’s a number. First of all, it’s difficult to get here, and once you are here, it’s even more difficult to win. Part of that is the talent that’s here.

So the seeding to me kind of evaporates. It’s valuable in the first round because if you line up those four teams, the 1 seed is normally going to get the team that maybe is not as potent as the others. But once you get here, there aren’t really any underdogs or anything like that.

I talk with Sully (Florida head coach) throughout the year, and they have a team like we had last year. There’s plenty of talent, but they kind of had to go through figure out what combination works and overcome some things, and kudos to them for making it here.

All you have to do is stand next to Cags for two seconds, and there’s no more underdogs. They had to go on the road again like we did last year. Anybody can beat anybody. Everybody knows that. Then you mentioned the numbers, whether it’s 1999 or just numbers game in general, it really is a numbers game.

Now there’s a championship series. There wasn’t one when I was younger. Really the only four teams that matter are us and the three that we’re in that group with. Out of four teams, one of them has to come out.

Just like those other three teams, right now our guys are saying, well, why not us? One out of four. Regardless of who is ranked or slotted where. Then Hunter brought it up. He listed off I think a social media thing I’ve never even heard of. And I’m not on Twitter. I mess around with Instagram a little bit. You said 1999. If you jump on the Google machine, you’ll see that’s right about when social media started and then it picked up steam.

I don’t think those two things are coincidence. We’ve dealt with it this year. We knew some things were coming when the NCAA committee — not that there’s any conspiracies or anything out there, but there was a couple of things that were going to happen with that bracket. Everybody predicted that in January.

So our guys had to battle not only the teams that we were playing against, but some of those underlying storylines that were available in our regional and other spots like that and how you confront those storylines and those labels that people give, whether it’s your seed or this can happen or can’t happen.

That now is part of competition for young kids. Where they’re ranked by perfect game in high school, it’s part of competition, so our guys need to compete against the right things and they need to choose what those right things are. Again, when we play Florida State, they’re one of four teams, but they’re the only one that matters on Friday, and they are very, very good.”

On what he learned here last season, if it was the building blocks for this team

“Sure. Last year was we faced Skenes right out of the gate, and he is obviously outstanding. We competed the whole game, and fortunately, just get him out of the game. It was pretty late, though. Then the bounce back feeling was what I really liked. We play Stanford. Incredibly talented. Yet, you had a little extra determination in there from the loss.

I don’t think we were true to ourselves in that last game. Maybe we just got beat, but it was reminiscent of ’21 when we got here. Our guys — if you interview any of them and there’s very competitive guys in that ’21 group, we just were not true to ourselves.

Again, when we show up on Friday, we could either win or we could lose, but I would prefer when we get back on the bus to go back to the hotel, we won or lost as the 2024 Vols. By now it’s deep enough into the season you guys can look from afar or our fans can make comments, but we know what that looks like and feels like.

I was looking for a Christmas present. I’m not a father. If I was looking for a Father’s Day present, it would be just to be ourselves. That ties into your other question of what’s this team look like or been. It’s, again — I just have to fall on the team chemistry thing.

Not up here with a bunch of Rudy’s or guys that played like I did skill-wise. There’s plenty of skill in that locker room, but again, just the vibe has been a good party during stretch. And then in pregame, you know, guys are trying to get stuff done and they’re communicating, but they’re also having fun.

Then during our games, there’s been a good understanding of what a nine-inning game is. You don’t want your guys getting too high or too low or dog-cussing somebody in the third inning and you have six innings left or you’re down or you’re up. It’s been a mature group.”

On players who were on the 2021 and 2023 teams but didn’t play having a chance to get back 

“It’s huge. If you have seen ‘The Last Dance,’ you take motivation any way you can get it. A lot of those guys were motivated just to get here and experience it, if they hadn’t, to get here and maybe play a little bit more of a role, to get here and get action, or to get here and play better than they did in the past if they are in the other category.

It’s really fun to see this lineage. You know, at Missouri if you count the years I was on the team trying to play and getting out there every now and then and coaching, it’s longer than Tennessee, but now I’ve been here longer than the other two spots combined.

I’m not a big — my dad was at the same school for 48 years, so it’s kind of nice to see that lineage that he had while he was there, and now we’re kind of getting that with our deal. It’s paying dividends that some of the older players can coach the younger players, and there’s a little bit of handing down the torch.”

On the big seasons of Moore, Amick and Burke and the tournament being four ACC and four SEC

“Those guys have fed off each other. It’s been a unique environment. With guys like Billy and Blake and C. Mo at the very top of the order, not only do they feed off each other competitively, because they all want to kind of carry the same weight, but they cheer for each other, especially on the day that’s not going well for them.

Because if you look at our box scores, there’s been a lot of days where maybe this guy didn’t really contribute that much, if you look at his at-bats statistically, but the others did. Then it might flip. Or it might be the bottom of the order versus the top of the order, and it’s different the other day.

It’s been pretty good to see guys not only compete internally and then also feed off each other’s success but also just cheer for each other.

I think overall it’s good to be here as the program who we are. There’s been a lot that’s kind of gone on through the season. I accidentally went on a little bit of a rant, but we had to work to be in the spot that we’re in, whether it’s opinions by people or once you get to the point where someone is actually hoisting a trophy, opinions start to lose a lot of value because it was just done on the field. I think there’s still work to be done for all eight teams that are here. I’m glad we’re one of them. We get to do work on the field. The thing I really like is that a few more bus trips, a few more plane rides or a few more days hanging out in the hotel, it’s a fun group to do that with.”

On how Christian Moore and Blake Burke have grown as leaders

“I think they’ve become more professional in their three years of how they’ve done things. Then, also, the theme I would say first year was learn from the older guys. Big brother approach. Hey, we saw what you did in high school, but this is different, okay, so you have to get on board with what’s going on here. At times it was, you know, stern influence from the older guys. Other times it was arm around them. But they really helped.

Those guys watched those older kids, like Trey Lipscomb, and that’s kind of the way you’re supposed to do it, and they tried to copy it. The next year was kind of like drinking from a firehose. All those guys are gone, so you asked for it, you got it.

I think it was a lot at once to handle being out there every day, being the middle of the order, being the guy that others looked to, you have to produce. Like the example I talked about earlier, we kind of had to work through that a little bit. Because they had to work through that, I think they came out on the other side a lot better people, teammates, and players this year, and I think this year is a byproduct of everything they’ve worked for in high school and a couple of years in our program.

That’s kind of what you want. In recruiting I try to limit it a little bit, but we tell all these guys how great they are and how bad we want them, and every day is sunny on our campus and all that. But it’s very, very challenging especially in our day and age now to be a freshman, and it’s not always going to be easy.

What you want are players you can envision being your best players as juniors and leaders and a big draft pick maybe, if that’s in the cards, when they’re juniors, when you are recruiting them. There is some time in between there that everybody needs to support them and help them. If it goes well, they’ll grow into what some of those guys have grown into, which is nice.”

On if the scheduled days off changes how you handle pitching

“I think it definitely can for certain teams. It’s weird not being able to see you right now, but I think it definitely can if are you a different team. With our team kind of what my mind is thinking, because I’m thinking of different scenarios, is we’ve kind of played Tetris all year long and tried to make it work with who is available that given day, what maybe we think a matchup is, how a guy is throwing.

I think we’re just going to kind of roll and stay true to our roots, roll with what we got, I should say. We’ll start with Stam on Friday, and then we’ll go from there with what we see fit, and we’ll just treat the game that we’re playing that particular day as if it’s almost kind of the only game we got.”

On what stands out about potential FSU starter Jamie Arnold

“I don’t know. You’re kind of helping us out. We don’t know who they’re throwing. They’ve thrown out a few names at us. We’ll kind of sit back and relax and wait and kind of picking up where we left off with our last game here.

We went over to Creighton and just hit. So I guess that’s part of the deal. When we do know who we’re starting, we’ll prepare as best we see hit. The DH spot is one spot we’ve altered some guys. Otherwise, we’ve almost kind of cement and found our lineup, which is what you want to do towards the end of the year, but it could be a couple of lefties with really good stuff.

The one thing about Arnold from having seen him up in the Cape Cod, I watched a video because he played with one of our guys, he’s very similar to a kid I coached name Rick Segoni (phonetic). A real low slot and a really whippy arm.

I think when Florida State started their year the way they did, he had a lot to do with it. When you have a great pitcher like a Skenes, it helps you on that game day and then it helps on all the other days too for obvious reasons. We’ll be patient and see who we’re facing, and then we’ll prepare as best as we see fit.”

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