Tony Vitello and select players met with the media Wednesday as the Vols wrapped up their fall season last week with the Orange and White World Series.

Vitello, left-handed pitcher Garrett Crochet and utility man Max Ferguson discussed the Vols strong fall season, the recently released 2020 schedule, injuries and more.

Sophomores shine as Vols’ depth improves

Tennessee lost two key pitchers to the MLB Draft and four positional starters from last year’s team, but you wouldn’t know that from listening to Vitello and company as Tennessee’s depth continues to improve heading into Vitello’s third season.

“I think I’m pleased with how the fall went because the fall World Series was very competitive,” Vitello said. “There were very few days where we said, ‘Hey if we were playing another team or we were being scouted or looked at, this would be a losing day.’ It just didn’t happen that often.”

Despite the four starting position players lost from last year the Vols feel confident about some guys looking to have a breakout sophomore season.

“I think that Max Ferguson has made a big jump,” Crochet said. “He’s got a little pop now. … Jake Rucker for sure man. His barrels really staying in the zone a lot and he’s getting a lot of base knocks, a lot of extra-base hits, and Trey Lipscomb as well. They’re all just banging it around.”

Ferguson was starting to find his groove a year ago as an everyday starter at first or second base, hitting .231 with a .390 on-base percentage before getting hit by a pitch against Kentucky effectively ending his season.

Tennessee believes Ferguson has been one of its most consistent performers this fall and could be in for a big second season jump.

“He’s gotten stronger,” Vitello said. “It’s the guys that have had over a year with Coach Q (Quentin Eberhardt). They have a certain look to them. … He’s gotten stronger but maintained athleticism.”

“The other thing is he was one of a few guys this fall that worked so hard that we had to slow him down and tell him not to take as many ground balls or as many swings.”

Taking a look at the 2020 schedule

Tennessee releases its 2020 schedule on Tuesday as the Vols will open up their season against Western Illinois, hosting the Bulldogs to Lindsey Nelson Stadium for a three-game series from February 14th through the 16th.

The schedule features an early season tournament in Round Rock, Texas, that will pit the Vols against premier programs Houston, Texas Tech and Stanford.

“We’re very excited for that,” Ferguson said. “It’s probably going to be a little cold, but we’re excited for that. You get to see how you stack up against some of the programs that are known to be very good.”

“For the kids that are from Texas on our roster it’s pretty neat,” Vitello said. “I think the other guys when they got handed the schedule were kind of geeked up. They want to measure themselves against the best.”

Tennessee will get plenty of chances to do that this year, as they do every year in the SEC. This year many of those opportunities come at home as the Vols SEC slate is headlined by home match-ups against Arkansas, Florida, LSU and defending National Champion Vanderbilt.

“It’s awesome to have Vandy at home,” Crochet said. “The reigning national champs and then to have LSU at home. I’m kind of trying to bounce back from my freshman year. My first appearance against them wasn’t very well. I’m just going to try and compete against them as hard as I can.”

“For the kids that are from Texas on our roster it’s pretty neat,” Vitello said. “I think the other guys when they got handed the schedule were kind of geeked up. They want to measure themselves against the best.”

Injuries

For as productive a fall as Tennessee had, the one setback was the significant number of injuries that plagued the Vols this fall.

“We haven’t talked about it, trying to keep a chipper attitude in front of you guys but there were a lot of injuries,” Vitello said. “Things like (Camden) Sewell getting slowed down, Liam not getting to showcase himself, (Will) Heflin and Kirby (Connell) are going to have to recover and hopefully be back in March.”

“There were more injuries this fall than we’d probably had in the previous two combined, and none of them called for us to look at, ‘maybe we’re doing too much or what about the weight room?’ It was all just some strange things like turning an ankle on a bag or going out for a football pass on a Saturday and just goofing around and turning an ankle.”

Sewell has to be a particularly concerning injury for Tennessee as the sophomore pitcher had a strong freshman season and was vying for a weekend starter spot this fall. Additionally, Sewell missed some time last season with a tight back.

“It was one (a fall) that was shortened by some back discomfort,” Vitello said. “We have some answers for that and some solutions, and I think we’re going to make some adjustments in the weight room. … He’s certainly bulked up a little bit but everybody’s not the same so we’ve come up with some solutions because he needs to be out there on that mound.”

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