New staff, experienced leadership crucial for 2018 Vols

FILE - The Tennessee Volunteers baseball team during the game against South Carolina at Lindsey Nelson Stadium on March 18, 2017.

The Tennessee baseball team is preparing for a challenging 2018 schedule, including 19 games against teams from the 2017 NCAA tournament, under first-year head coach Tony Vitello.

Vitello’s team will play 56 games, with 33 to be played at home, in his inaugural season with the Vols. The difficult schedule will be met by a young roster that only has two seniors on the team.

“It’s a young team, and those guys (the freshmen) are going to have to form collectively as a group,” Vitello said.

The two seniors on the squad are catcher Benito Santiago and outfielder Brodie Leftridge. Their importance to this team cannot be emphasized enough by their teammates and coaches.

“Being able to have those guys in the program, those are the ones who are important — showing you the ropes and bringing everyone together,” sophomore pitcher Garrett Stallings said.

Santiago played in 33 games last year, batting .250 with 20 RBI. He is eager for one more season alongside Leftridge and the Vols.

“We’re extremely excited to come in and take over the team and to have them follow our steps,” Santiago said. “I feel extremely honored to be back and being able to lead the team in the right direction.”

Vitello says that Leftridge, who has 75 career starts to his name, is vital to helping the younger guys and to lead on the team with Santiago.

“A freshman is going to listen to Brodie (Leftridge) more than he is me,” Vitello said. “I don’t care how well I state it.”

Pitching will be the key to this team’s success and will be dependent upon sophomores Stallings and Zach Linginfelter, who both finished 3-4 with a 3.47 ERA and a 3.67 ERA last season, respectively.

Junior Will Neely will also be a starter for this team, as he enters the season with the most experience on the pitching staff, having taken the mound in 39 career games.

Behind this trio of pitchers, there are more young arms hoping to get a shot.

“I think the whole staff, whether it’s bullpen or starters, the theme seems to be a lot of usable arms,” Vitello said. “By May you want to lean on your best seven or eight.”

Until May rolls around, there are sure to be many guys jockeying for time on the bump.

The pitchers will be led by pitching coach Frank Anderson, who brings 34 years of coaching experience with him to Tennessee. Vitello refers to Anderson as the “daddy” of the Tennessee pitching staff.

“We have a book printed off of all the guys that have been drafted that Anderson has coached,” Vitello said. “We show that to recruits, and it is pretty impressive.”

Another critical aspect of the coaching staff that Vitello has compiled is the addition of former Tennessee and MLB catcher J.P. Arencibia, who is now the student assistant coach. Arencibia joins another former Vol standout in Todd Helton, who is in his second year as the director of player development for the team.

Vitello says that Arencibia and Helton can provide things for the players that he cannot.

“I can give them a few insights from my experience of being a college coach,” Vitello said. “But those two guys are impressive to have around. It’s great to get their autographs, but they really round out our staff well.”

As a unit, the Tennessee players say that their new coaching staff brings a positivity with them that was not evident last season.

“It’s been a complete 360,” Santiago said. “There has been a lot more positivity; we have been having a lot of fun.”

Now, the Tennessee baseball program can hope this attitude change will lead to different results on the field from last year. A guiding principle for Vitello’s team during the 2018 season: Put in the work and have fun watching the effort pay off.

“Nothing is more fun than winning,” Vitello said. “If you do put in that preparation and hard work, you’d like to think there is going to be some fun times in the locker room postgame.”

Tennessee will open the season with nine straight home games, beginning with a three-game series against Maryland from Feb. 16 through Feb. 18.

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