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Tony Vitello’s Early Tennessee Teams Deserve Tons Of Credit For The Vols National Championship

Photo via Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee strength coach Quentin Eberhardt will never forget it. In a team meeting following Tony Vitello’s first season a specific player said that he didn’t believe the Vols would ever make it to a regional.

“Tony and I looked at each other like it was the most crazy thing we’ve ever heard in our life,” Eberhardt told RTI after Tennessee won its first ever National Championship on Monday night.

Vitello and his coaching staff, which is largely still intact, inherited a losing culture at Tennessee. The Vols hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament in 13 years and hadn’t even won a SEC Tournament game in 11 years.

While Tennessee overachieved and won 12 SEC games in 2018, Vitello and his coaching staff were constantly fighting to change the mindset of players that viewed Tennessee as a second class program.

“It was a deflated sense of self worth and self being,” Eberhardt said. “I don’t mean as a human but on the field. The belief that they didn’t have.”

“I think we had a few team meetings and guys were honest about expectations and what the ceiling might be and Tony made it very clear that that wasn’t going to be the case under his leadership,” Tennessee associate head coach Josh Elander said. “I think guys really bought into that after that first year and really got to work and now it is pretty crazy to be standing here like this.”

Tennessee took major steps forward starting in Vitello’s second season as they returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005, falling in the Chapel Hill Regional final. Veterans like Garrett Stallings and Andre Lipcius college careers ended following that season, but their belief in Vitello’s program set the stage for improvement in the early days.

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Richard Jackson has a unique perspective on Tennessee’s program. He played on Vitello’s first two teams and has been an assistant coach for the last five teams. After returning to relevancy in 2019, Jackson sees the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season as the one where the players believed that Tennessee could achieve any goal it set.

“That 2020 year, that was a really good club and they had the work ethic, the determination and all that good stuff to go ahead and do it and then it gets cut short,” Jackson told RTI. “Ever since that day it got cut short it was basically, ‘hey we’re going to do this thing at some point.’”

Tennessee redshirt senior Ethan Payne was one of just a few players on the 2024 team that were on the 2020 team. He remembers walking into a culture that had already changed and wasn’t going to take a back seat to any in the SEC.

“I kind of came in and there was already a group there like the Garrett Crochet’s, Alerick Soularie, Zach Daniels. Just guys that had been there and those guys really saw the transformation,” Payne said. “All of those guys were kind of like the main core guys from that transition and they already had the right mindset going into it and I think that was just so easy for my class like Jordan Beck and Drew Gilbert and all of us to see that and realize that is where the culture is.”

The Vols made the College World Series for the first time under Vitello in 2021 and was the best team in the country in 2022 before Notre Dame upset them in the super regionals. Drew Gilbert, Jordan Beck and Trey Lipscomb once again elevated Tennessee baseball and set Vitello’s program up for more future success.

“They didn’t stop coming around when the season was over and they were gone,” Drew Beam said. “They taught us that freshman year when we came short of Omaha, we were right there. And I learned so much from that and those guys taught me how to deal with that and got me through it. Then I could instill it into some of these younger guys that are on the team now. … I hope that I am the same kind of light that those guys in ‘22 were to me.”

There will be no championship ring for Andrew Schultz, Justin Ammons, Evan Russell, Pete Derkay, Will Heflin, Luc Lipcius, Camden Sewell, Sean Hunley, Redmond Walsh, Blade Tidwell, Jake Rucker, Connor Pavolony, Jorel Ortega, Jared Dickey or many other key Vols during Vitello’s seven seasons as head coach.

But without them, the 2024 Tennessee baseball team would have never been in the place to where they could take the next step to the top of the mountaintop.

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