Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, June 2, 2023

Are the Vols ready for an NCAA run or running on empty?

Mt. Juliet sophomore Jared Dickey, who leads the Vols with a .343 average and 70 hits, was a second-team All-SEC selection. - Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com

Given all the talent and depth on the roster, it would have been hard to imagine the University of Tennessee baseball team not hosting NCAA tournament games for a third straight year.

But after an up-and-down season, the Vols will have to find some success on the road if they want to reach the College World Series in Omaha.

Tennessee (38-19, 16-14 SEC) will open NCAA play Friday in the Clemson Regional. The Vols are the No. 2 seed in the double-elimination regional and play No. 3 Charlotte at 5 p.m. CDT (ESPNU). Clemson, the No. 4 national seed, is the top seed in the regional and plays Lipscomb at noon CDT.

Regional winners advance to best-of-three Super Regionals, and those eight winners move on to the College World Series beginning June 16. The Vols are 4-12 on the road and 1-2 in neutral site games this season.

An NCAA record eight SEC teams earned a top-16 seed this year, but Tennessee, which was the No. 1 overall seed last season, was not one of them.

The Vols have been a bit of a tease this season. They have high-level arms on the mound and quality bats in the lineup, but haven’t always put it all together with consistency.

Coming off SEC regular-season and tournament titles in 2022, Tennessee started the season ranked No. 2 in the country. But the Vols quickly started falling down the polls with a slow start. They turned things in the right direction toward the end of the season, although not enough to earn a hosting opportunity.

Tennessee lost to Texas A&M in the first round of the SEC Tournament. Although the Vols were disappointed to exit so early, it could be beneficial. The state of Mississippi has provided the road map.

Last year, Ole Miss lost in the opener at the SEC Tournament and won the national championship. Two years ago, Mississippi State went winless at the SEC Tournament and did the same.

Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello believes the grind of the SEC prepares teams well for NCAA play.

“There’s nothing you have not seen,” he says. “No fan is going to make a comment, no amount of fans, no noise, no facility, no pitching, no hitter. You’re going to see everything in this league, so it prepares you. I think that’s one of the reasons you often see a bunch of teams from our league in Omaha.”

Pulling the parts together

Despite not having as many wins as expected, few would be surprised to see the Vols make a run back to Omaha for the second time in three years.

SEC Network analyst Todd Walker gave Tennessee the best chance of any SEC team to win the national title during a segment two weeks ago.

“I think they’ve got all the parts,” Walker says. “They’ve got three front-line starters. The bullpen is very good and, of course, Chase Burns on the back end with a 100-mile-an-hour fastball and the wipeout slider.

“They’ve hit 110 home runs … and they’ve just lit it up over the last month, averaging more than 10 runs a game. The offense is just really good now. The defense was the worst in the league the first half of the year, but as the pitching has gotten better, the defense has gotten better. They’ve got every part.”

The parts just need to play at the level befitting of a championship team.

Jared Dickey of Mt. Juliet was the only UT player to earn all-conference honors this season as a second-team selection. The redshirt sophomore has a team-high .343 average and 70 hits.

Graduate transfer Griffin Merritt has hit a team-leading 17 home runs and senior Zane Denton leads the team with 50 RBI. Highly-touted transfer Maui Ahuna is batting .313 with 18 doubles

On the mound, Tennessee ranks No. 4 in the nation in staff ERA at 3.69.

Junior Chase Dollander is 6-6 with a 4.28 ERA and 107 strikeouts. Sophomore Drew Beam is 7-4 with a 4.18 ERA and Burns has a 5.30 ERA. Junior Andrew Lindsey, who is 2-2 with a 2.54 ERA, has pitched well of late,

In a radio interview on WNML’s Josh & Swain before the SEC Tournament, former Tennessee baseball coach Dave Serrano predicted the Vols making a deep NCAA run.

“In my opinion, I’ve seen everybody around the country this year, and I just think when it comes to tournament time, I think Tennessee is going to be very tough to beat,” he says. “And in my opinion, and I’m not being biased, in my opinion they’re going to be the last team standing … you look where they’re at now, I would not want to be a team that matches up against Tennessee in a regional, super regional or in Omaha.”

Tennessee led nearly every statistical category last season and was able to host last season, yet got upset in the Super Regional by Notre Dame and failed to get back to the CWS.

If they can overcome their road woes and start to reach their potential at the right time, the Vols won’t care how they reach their desired final destination.

Texas A&M head coach Jim Schlossnagle believes it’s possible.

“That’s an Omaha team,” he said after his Aggies eliminated Tennessee in the SEC Tournament. “It’s an Omaha team. They just have to go play like it.”