Tennessee took the field at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in a postseason game for the first time in 14 years on Friday.
In their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2005, the Vols (38-20) could not find rhythm at the plate, dropping a first round contest to the Liberty Flames (43-19), 6-1 in game two of the Chapel Hill Regional.
The loss forces Tennessee into an elimination game on Saturday against UNC Wilmington.
“Obviously a disappointing effort from us,” Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said. “You never want plays on the field that look like little league plays. It’s disrespectful to our fans and our program, but it’s also going to happen when you got young kids trying to compete with their hearts.”
Originally slated for a 7 p.m. start, the Vols were forced into a waiting game thanks to a lengthy weather delay that halted game one of the regional between North Carolina and UNC Wilmington.
After the NCAA announced that Tennessee-Liberty game would be moved to Saturday, the ruling was reversed and first pitch finally took place three hours later at 10 p.m.
Players like Tennessee’s Evan Russell thought the long delay played a part in their performance, despite the feeling that the team was focused coming in.
“You could say that (the weather delay) did affect us,” Russell said. “I feel like the team came out and I feel like we were ready to play. I thought we were kind of ‘over ready.’ I feel like we kind of let that get in our heads.”
For Vitello, he thought the sentiment in the dugout before the game was different than in games the Vols had come out on top in during the regular season.
“That’s a situation for both teams,” Vitello said of the weather delay. “It’s something you’ve got to handle. For whatever reason, we didn’t handle it. Obviously it’s my responsibility to make sure the guys are ready to play.
“I thought the environment in our dugout was a little different than it usually is on a successful game day.”
Liberty proved ready in the early going of the first inning, taking a 2-0 lead off of a two-run homerun from Jonathan Embry with no outs.
The Flames added to that lead again in the third, thanks to a Tyler Galazin double off of the wall to bring in another RBI and put the Vols in a 3-0 hole. Liberty threatened to add more with a pair of runners in scoring position but pitcher Garrett Stallings was able to limit the scoring to just one run.
In what became a trend in the game, a Tennessee throwing error in the sixth allowed the Flames to plate another run from third to go ahead 4-0. Another throwing error in the seventh put runners on second and third, setting up a two-RBI single to make it a 6-0 game.
Tennessee finally found an answer in the seventh with a Russell solo homerun to cut into Liberty’s lead, 6-1.
“I was just trying to compete,” Russell said. “I feel like I could be one of the guys that get an inning started and that’s pretty much what my approach was. I was just trying to hit the ball up the middle and get on base, and I got under one.”
The score proved to be too little, too late for the Vols, however, who could not capitalize on the momentum, setting themselves up for an important elimination contest on Saturday.
First pitch for Tennessee and UNC Wilmington is scheduled for 12:06 p.m. and will air on ESPN3.