Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, February 17, 2023

No. 2-ranked Vols looking for deeper postseason run

UT pitcher Chase Dollander is a first-team preseason All-America selection. He was 10-0 last year. - Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com

Given the talent, recent history and swift rise under head coach Tony Vitello, it’s not unexpected for prognosticators to have high expectations for this year’s Tennessee baseball program.

The Vols enter the 2023 season ranked No. 2 in the country by Baseball America – rivals Florida and Vanderbilt are Nos. 3 and 6, respectively – and picked to win the SEC Eastern Division. The Tennessee roster is stocked with potential draft picks and more promising young stars.

But Vitello is quick to caution about basing the future on UT’s past performances.

“This team probably has been bolstered up a little bit too much,” Vitello says. “We need to center our attention on not ‘do we fit in that top crop?’ Because, first of all, you are not going to know until conference play anyway. Start channeling our energy to who are we and what do I need to do to be the best version of us. We are right in the middle of that deal.”

The Vols will kick off the season in the MLB Desert Invitational in Arizona Friday-Sunday. Joining Tennessee in the tournament field are Arizona, Fresno State, Grand Canyon, Michigan State and the University of San Diego.

UT plays its home opener Feb. 21 against Alabama A&M.

Tennessee is coming off a disappointing end to a record-breaking season that saw a huge increase in fan interest and media attention. The top-seeded Vols fell short of making it back to the College World Series for the second consecutive year, losing to Notre Dame in the Super Regional at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.

Reloading after falling short

Tennessee (57-9) set program records for victories and home runs (158) while winning the SEC regular-season and tournament titles for the first time since 1995. The Vols had program-record 10 players selected in last year’s MLB Draft.

Living up to those numerical standards may be a tall task, but the Vols certainly still have the talent to be title contenders.

Their pitching staff is anchored by returning starters Chase Dollander, Chase Burns and Drew Beam.

Dollander had a breakout sophomore season in 2022, earning first-team All-America honors and becoming just the second player in program history to be named SEC Pitcher of the Year. He finished 10-0 with a 2.39 ERA and 108 strikeouts.

Burns was 8-2 with a 2.91 ERA and 103 strikeouts as the Friday night starter. He earned numerous Freshman of the Year honors and was named to four All-America teams.

The Vols added some young arms to the bullpen. Vitello called the freshmen class “probably depth wise, as good of a class as I’ve been around, pitching wise.”

Although Vitello expects a few freshmen to “grab some important innings,” they may need to exercise patience given the strength of the experienced veterans.

“I think for the bulk of the competition, we kind of know what we got,” Vitello says. “It’s just a matter of where do we think guys help the team most and then how are the guys going to capitalize on the opportunities we give them starting in Arizona.”

Transfers Maui Ahuna (Kansas) and Zane Denton (Alabama) are expected to fill the vacated starting roles at shortstop and third base, respectively.

Ahuna, who is considered one of the best defensive shortstops in the country, batted .357 with 75 runs scored, 27 doubles, 21 stolen bases and 73 RBIs in his two seasons at Kansas.

But Vitello doesn’t expect everything to be seamless right away in a new environment.

“Maui is a super lovable kid and everybody knows he’s highly skilled, but same thing, you’re wrapped up in a culture and an experience,” Vitello says. “For two years, you kind of feel like that’s who you’ve become and now you got to reverse it. It’s one thing about the portal. I don’t know if I should say this, but sometimes you got to, you got to take everything into consideration. Maybe the grass is greener on our side, in his instance, because there was a coaching change. You don’t just step on a campus, and just because you’re a good player all of a sudden, bam, here I am.”

Outfield chemistry key

In terms of the outfield, the Vols will likely experiment with many different combinations until SEC play begins. They want to use the early games to get experience and figure out the best chemistry.

“I think you will probably see three different starting lineups in the outfield for those three spots. One guy might start in the outfield and then DH or (Jared) Dickey is fully capable of catching,” Vitello says. “As of now, we’ve kind of stirred him more to the outfield just as of now. We’ve only been practicing a little bit, but some combinations are there.”

Vitello has liked what he’s seen early from freshmen outfielders Dylan Dreiling and Reese Chapman.

“They were capable of doing that out of high school and, at the same time, they’re young, so they have a lot to learn,” he says. “Exciting future for those two guys at those spots, and to be honest with you, they should be thinking the future is now.”

That is the mindset the Vols will be embracing as a whole. Looking back to past seasons may serve as motivation, but they want to establish their own benchmarks of success.

They learned last year that being at the top entering the postseason is no guarantee of advancing to the ultimate destination.