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Inside The Recruitments Of The Transfer Class That Propelled Tennessee Baseball Back To Omaha

Photo By Ian Cox/Tennessee Athletics

There were valuable tips from summer ball coaches and twelve-hour drives through the night. Heavy-hitting recruiting battles and impressive evaluations.

Tennessee baseball landed commitments from seven players in the transfer portal last summer with six of them making it to campus. The three hitters have combined for 33 home runs and 113 starts while the three pitchers have combined for 209 strikeouts in 184.2 innings pitched.

Inside the six-week stretch that saw Tony Vitello and his staff dominate the transfer portal and set the Vols on a collision course back to the College World Series.

More From RTI: Everything To Know Ahead Of Tennessee Baseball’s College World Series Opener Against Florida State

Early Additions On The Mound

Tennessee was losing five of its top six pitchers from its 2023 College World Series team, and while the Vols liked their incoming freshman class, adding arms in the transfer portal was a major priority.

Tennessee first targeted Jacksonville State right-handed pitcher AJ Causey. The Vols were bullish on Causey’s potential because of his low arm slot and a fastball that sat in the low-90s. Causey was a closer for the Gamecocks as a freshman and had mild success as a Friday starter in his sophomore season, posting a 5.07 ERA in 76.1 innings pitched.

Tennessee thought Causey could be even better making the jump to the SEC by polishing up his breaking ball to go along with his already stout fastball and changeup.

“At the time, he didn’t spin a breaking ball well at all the last two years,” Tennessee assistant coach Richard Jackson told RTI. “You could just look at the slot and the way the ball was moving and we thought we could get him a pretty good breaking ball.”

The Vols had an obvious connection to Causey too. The right-handed pitcher played summer travel ball with Drew Beam for the Huntsville-based Viper Baseball Academy. Tennessee brought Causey in for a visit the same day the team left for the Hattiesburg Super Regional and he immediately hit it off with pitching coach Frank Anderson and strength coach Quentin Eberhardt.

He had already visited Arkansas and Auburn and was also considering Alabama and LSU. Tennessee was concerned about whether the Huntsville native, who grew up an Auburn fan, would leave the YellowHammer State, but Causey committed to the staff two days after his visit and made it public two days after the Vols’ season ended in Omaha.

“Not really,” Causey said on whether it was tough to turn down his favorite team growing up. “The development at Tennessee was just clearly so much better.”

As Causey was making his commitment official, Wichita State’s Nate Snead was arriving in Knoxville for a visit. The right-handed pitcher was coming off a stellar freshman season and everyone in the country was after him.

“We knew that one was going to be a war from the jump just because not only (was Snead) arguably the best on-paper stuff-wise arm, but the ceiling and he’s a two-year guy,” Tennessee associate head coach and recruiting coordinator Josh Elander told RTI.

The Vols were well positioned for Snead from the jump for two reasons. First was because current Tennessee Director of Player Development Luke Bonfield laid the groundwork two years prior when he was still a graduate assistant.

While Vitello, Elander and Anderson were out recruiting in the summer, Snead and his family were coming through Knoxville. Bonfield was one of the few coaches in town and brought the family in for an unofficial visit and tour of the facility. That created a sense of familiarity between Snead and Tennessee.

Secondly, Tennessee was Snead’s dream school. But while the Vols heavily recruited Snead out of the portal and brought him in for another visit, they had no idea that was the case.

“I didn’t really feel good about it until he committed,” Jackson said.

“We just felt like it was a really good fit and it was going to be tough no matter what because everyone was trying to get his services on the mound because he’s got some big stuff,” Elander said.

While the top competition kept Tennessee from feeling overly confident, they had done enough on Snead’s visit to lock him down. The right-handed pitcher committed to Tennessee just days later, choosing the Vols over Arkansas and LSU.

“Drew Beam was on my visit, so was CMo,” Snead said. “So I got to hang out with them for a while. Kind of getting their insight on Tennessee and I also got to meet with (Chase) Dollander and he just loved it so that just sealed the deal.”

Landing Causey and Snead was a strong start to the Vols’ transfer class in the eight days after their season ended. They’ve both lived up to, if not exceeded, the expectations. Causey (3.77 ERA in 86.1 IP) and Snead (3.34 ERA in 67.1 IP) are perhaps Tennessee’s two best pitchers and were immensely important in the Vols’ return to Omaha.

Clemson transfer Billy Amick hits a home run against LSU in the SEC Tournament // Photo via UT Athletics Kate Luffman

The Cape Cod Trio

When Snead wrapped up his visit, Elander flew to Massachusetts to meet with a number of targets in the Cape Cod League.

The Vols were heavily recruiting three players in the transfer portal who were playing playing summer ball there— North Carolina State’s Cannon Peebles, Wofford’s Ryan Galanie and Clemson’s Billy Amick.

Elander got to Massachusetts and immediately got lunch with Amick and his Cape Cod teammate and Tennessee junior college signee Bradke Lohry. Tennessee’s associate head coach then went to watch Peebles and Galanie play.

Vitello arrived on the Cape that night and the two met with Peebles— who didn’t want to take any visits and miss opportunities in the summer league— and his mom. Tennessee’s head coach also caught up with Amick and lined up a visit for later that week.

After an eventful two days in Massachusetts, Elander prepared to fly back to Knoxville ahead of Amick’s visit. But the wildfires in Canada had canceled all the flights out of the northeast. Elander rented a car and prepared to drive back to Tennessee through the night.

“You want to talk about some caffeine being dominated,” Elander said.

Elander received an energy boost that no amount of caffeine could give him early in his drive. Peebles, a Freshman All-American catcher, called him to tell him he was committing to Tennessee over Vanderbilt and Virginia.

“That gave me a big jolt and we were really excited about that,” Elander said.

Tennessee’s associate head coach made it back to Knoxville “in one piece.” He promptly went to a doctor’s appointment for his pregnant wife Brittany, who gave birth to their second daughter in August, and returned to campus to start preparing for Amick’s visit.

The Vols expected third baseman Zane Denton to depart to professional baseball following the 2023 season and were targeting Amick, who hit .413 with 13 home runs as a sophomore at Clemson, as his replacement.

“We basically had to fill third base and he was the best guy in the country to fill that,” Jackson said.

Amick’s visit went well but, like Snead’s recruitment, the Vols were battling top competition. The third baseman visited Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina before committing to Tennessee just over a week after his visit.

Between Amick’s visit and commitment, Galanie committed to Tennessee without taking a visit. A draft-eligible graduate transfer, the Vols felt that there was a fifty-fifty chance that he would make it to campus when he committed. But Galanie kept tearing up the Cape Cod League, and signed with the Chicago White Sox for $150,000 after they drafted him in the 13th round.

Amick (.313 BA, 23 HR) has exceeded the hype in his junior season while Peebles has had a disappointing first season in Knoxville (.227 BA, 2 HR).

Tennessee utility man and Missouri transfer Dalton Bargo. Photo By Kate Luffman/Tennessee Athletics

The Finishing Touches

Elander and Bonfield dropped Amick off at the airport to conclude his visit and proceeded to drive straight to Dead End Barbecue where they were meeting Missouri utility man Dalton Bargo.

Bargo was playing his summer baseball in the Appalachian League which made it easy for him to get away for a day trip. The Omaha native was catching in the Appy League and Tennessee worried that he wouldn’t remain interested after the Vols landed Peebles. But the left-handed hitter wasn’t deterred and still wanted to come on his visit.

“We loved Dalton because he was a ball player,” Elander said. “He could do so many different things.”

“I felt good about that one because he was so close and I knew he liked the area,” Jackson said.

Tennessee had two factors working in its favor in Bargo’s recruitment. First, Bargo’s dad worked with Tennessee Video Coordinator Sean McCann at Kansas State. Second, Bargo’s main goal was to play in the College World Series in his hometown— something Vitello and the Vols already had a track record of doing.

“He was low maintenance,” Elander said. “He was going to be a great fit with our guys right away and pretty cool that we’re talking now in Omaha, his home town, and that’s what we were talking about at this time last year with him.”

Bargo committed to Tennessee over Ole Miss just days after his visit concluded and rounded out the position players in the Vols’ portal class.

After landing six transfers in 15 days, Tennessee didn’t land its final transfer until just under a month later when Cal’s Chris Stamos committed in early August.

Stamos’ summer ball coach Joey Gomes told Tennessee about the left-handed pitcher in early July. He implored the Vols to recruit Stamos and Jackson reached out while Tennessee continued to evaluate his tape.

“This guy is probably the best summer ball coach in the country and we send guys out there each year,” Jackson said. “He was basically like, here’s his number you guys need to call him, so we called him and Stam committed pretty much sight unseen having not seen our place— just with the relationship side of it.”

Stamos did his research on Tennessee and said the program “speaks for itself.” When Tennessee landed Stamos (4.02 ERA in 31.1 IP) they viewed him as a bullpen arm. Instead, he became the Vols’ Friday night opener and will start their College World Series matchup against Florida State.

Bargo (.294 BA, 8 HR) has been in and out of the lineup at designated hitter and third base all season and will almost certainly be a full-time starter in his junior season.

Tennessee landed seven Division I transfers and six made it to campus. They include three of the team’s most important players but all have stepped up on the road to Omaha.

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