By: Zac Strickland
Senior Staff Writer
All Vol Call in Show
One of the most pleasant surprises of the past year was watching Tony Vitello and the Volunteers baseball team exceed all expectations. The ragtag bunch came out of virtual obscurity to win the SEC East over baseball powerhouse Vanderbilt, reach the SEC championship game, and make the College World series for the first time since 2005. Even fans who hadn’t before been heavily invested in baseball took an interest in the team, as a cast of characters like Drew Gilbert, Max Ferguson, Luc Lipcius, Evan Russell, Chad Dallas and others repeatedly delivered on the big stage.
Though this breakthrough came as a surprise to most, those who have been carefully watching the program since Vitello’s hiring in 2017 likely aren’t as shocked. The Vols baseball program had been a conference bottom feeder for more than a decade, and the facilities did not match up to the rest of the SEC (and still don’t, although improvements are in the works.) Like Rick Barnes did, and like we hope Josh Heupel will soon do, Vitello slowly but surely improved the culture within the program, and got the most out of the talent he had. By his second year in 2019, the Vols were no juggernaut, but had ascended to be at least an average SEC team in a loaded conference, and made the NCAA tournament after years of absence. The 2020 diamond Vols started the year red-hot, starting 14-0 and winning the Red Rock Classic tournament before the Covid-19 pandemic brought the season to a premature end.
The table was set for what was supposed to be a solid 2021 season, but the result was more than just solid. The 2021 team was one of the best in program history, amassing a record of 50-18 and 20-10 in SEC play. They produced moments for the ages, such as Evan Russell’s 3 HR games against LSU and Vandy, Max Ferguson’s walkoff homer to knock off #1 Arkansas, and Drew Gilbert’s absolute bomb to break the hearts of Wright State in the first NCAA tournament game. Reaching the College World Series was a landmark achievement for the program, but the Vols probably wish they had a redo on the two games they played there, losses to Virginia and Texas.
The good news is that a lot of last year’s lineup is back and hungrier than ever for the 2022 campaign, with the nation’s #5 recruiting class coming in to provide reinforcement. Four mainstays in the batting lineup return: CF Drew Gilbert, RF Jordan Beck, 1B Luc Lipcius, and LF Evan Russell, who may be moving to catcher this year. Blade Tidwell should be the ace on the mound after starting Sundays last year for the Vols, with key relievers Camden Sewell and Redmond Walsh to man the later innings. Sewell showed in a SEC tournament shutout of Florida that he is more than capable of starting as well if necessary. Two of the most important additions could prove to be pitcher Chase Burns and SS Ryan Spikes, a couple of highly rated prospects. Pitcher Seth Halvorsen also comes in as a transfer from SEC foe Missouri.
Overall, this roster has a bit more turnover than what we saw last year, after Al Soularie was the only significant departure following the COVID-shortened year. However, this team will likely have the most raw talent of any team Tennessee has fielded since at least the Rod Delmonico era. In a regular season comprised of more than 50 games, Vitello will have plenty of time to tinker with the lineup and figure out how to best put the pieces in place for Tennessee to be successful. In a conference as loaded as the SEC is year in and year out, it’s impossible to predict a champion when there are usually at least five or six strong contenders. But UT caught lightning in a bottle last season, and Danny White did an excellent job inking Tony Vitello for a long-term contract to ensure that the Vols would stay at or near the top of the SEC for years to come, right there with the likes of Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Florida and Mississippi State. With that said, expect the Vols to have another strong campaign and compete for a potential second consecutive trip to Omaha.