The SEC cycle ended the same way the SEC baseball season ended, which was essentially the same way the SEC baseball season began. The Tennessee Volunteers, selected to finish in the middle of the league before the season, continued Tony Vitello’s quest for dominance by moving to the wires as the best team in the conference and in the nation. What is left for folders? To echo Roger Dorn in the movie Major Leaguejust to win it all (whistling sound).
It’s no less amazing that the Tennessee climb was as fast or complete as it was. Vitello inherited a Tennessee program that hasn’t been in the College World Series since 2005 and only had a 3-time NCAA Championship win between 1997 and 2017, when Vitello was named. UT hasn’t won the SEC Championship since 1995 and was basically an afterthought in the league. After the end of the Rod Delmonico era in 2007, the next two coaches in Utah, both set their sub-.500 run records in Knoxville.
Enter Vitello, whose volumes barely exceeded 0.500 in 2018, but then won forty games and made the NCAA regional in 2019. After the 2020 season was cut short by COVID, Vitello led the Vols to 50 wins and the College World Series last season. This year, UT started the season ranked 5 out of 6 major NCAA polls, but no higher than 16 in any of them. On March 28, Utah – in the midst of a 23-game winning streak – officially ranked first in all six polls. Half of the polls dropped to UT after the Vols lost the weekend series, but by the following week, all six polls were ranked first again. It was this kind of season.
This UT squad hit 0.308, blasted 141 homers, and finished 90 times ahead of LSU in second-place runs recorded. Drew Gilbert’s .385 tops the SEC, and Trey Lipscomb’s 77 RBI similarly leads the conference. Jorel Ortega or Luc Lipcius would be the best hitter on most teams in the SEC. But promotion was expected to be UT’s weak point.
An era of 2.35 Vols not only topped the league but led it by more than 1.5 per game. Utah’s 641 hits were 57 ahead of second-placed Vanderbilt. Opponents hit .193 against UT. Chase Dolander has 9 wins and a 2.21 ERA at the top of the league standings, but teammates Drew Beam and Chase Burns finished second and third in the SEC at ERA. Ben Joyce’s 105+ mph smoke defies belief. UT is the best hitting and best shooting team in the country. And that’s the way it goes 53-7, finishes first most of the year, and dominates in the SEC Championship.
The SEC final was an odd match, as UT broke through to a goalless draw with 4 runs in the fifth inning, highlighted by a Gilbert double. A pair of RBI doubles for sixth, with Lepsius meddling in two rounds, extended UT’s lead to 7-0. Florida trimmed UT’s lead to 7-3 on 8, and got in within 8-5 on 9, but the tie race didn’t make it to the plate. Camden Sewell, UT’s fifth choice as a junior pitcher, shut out the Gators in the first five rounds of all but put the title to bed.
When the last fly ball fell into left player Seth Stevenson’s glove, the coronation was complete and official. Tennessee State spent the 2022 season head and shoulders above the Securities and Exchange Commission, in fact, above college baseball.
From a 23-game winning streak to a championship title (win by a combined score of 35-10), UT fulfilled its hoped-for promise when Vitello was appointed in the summer of 2017.
The Vols are the SEC’s top baseball dog. Maybe a big college baseball dog.
From reaching the NCAA Championship to making it to Omaha to becoming the number one team in the sport, there was only one hurdle left. Last year’s Arkansas team illustrates the difficulties inherent in claiming the College World Championship for even the most obvious sports team. But if anyone is up for a fight, it’s UT. They have faced all the previous challenges, so it’s time to move on to the last and biggest challenge.