Third year head coach Tony Vitello has his sights set on doing damage in the SEC and in the postseason for his Volunteer baseball team. Tennessee has not been a historical powerhouse program in baseball, but Vitello aims to change that.
The team has hovered around .500 for the past 20 years. The team’s best finish in the past two decades has been second in the SEC which happened way back in 2005. However, last year Tennessee had its best finish since 2005 when they surprised the league by finishing 40-21 which was good enough for third in the east.
Vitello has begun putting UT on the map in baseball and it is proven not just by the team’s performance, but also by the national recognition that players are gaining as a result. The Vols have not had a national, or even conference, award winner since 2006 when J.P. Arencibia was named First Team All-American by the College Baseball Foundation.
This year will seemingly change that narrative as three Vols have gained national attention with preseason awards flowing into Knoxville.
Junior outfielder Alerick Soularie has been the topic of many articles, as he has been named a preseason All-American by Perfect Game, Baseball America, the NCBWA and D1Baseball. Soularie was also named to the Preseason First-Team All-SEC by the league this past week.
Pitcher Garrett Crochet was named to All-American honors by both Perfect Game and Baseball America while junior relief pitcher Redmond Walsh was recognized by the NCBWA as a Preseason All-American. Both Soularie and Crochet are currently listed amid MLB’s Top 100 Draft Prospects list.
That list of awards is the beginning of a change of culture on Rocky Top by coach Tony Vitello. Vitello has gained the backing of all of the Tennessee fanbase with what he has done to turn the program around during his short tenure thus far in Knoxville, but the Vols’ coach has much bigger aspirations.
“It’s phenomenal the jump that this program has made,” junior outfielder Evan Russell said during a preseason press conference. “My freshman year we still won 12 games in the SEC, but we weren’t a team anyone feared. I don’t think we’re quite at that level yet, but coach Vitello is bringing in the guys to do it, the guys he is recruiting are just a different breed. The difference is night and day from when I first got here.”
Every year the University of Tennessee freshman class gathers to take a class picture in front of Ayers Hall on the hill and is then ushered into Neyland Stadium for a pep rally. During this pep rally, almost all of the head coaches from each sport introduce themselves to the class and make a pitch to the students about what they are trying to accomplish here in hopes they will gain the support of students and fill up the bleachers.
No coach made a bigger impression on the freshman this August than Tony Vitello. The head coach began his speech by acknowledging the lack of baseball history here at UT, but vowed to do his best to change that, and with one sentence, he gained the full support of the class of 2023.
“Before you graduate, you will watch this team play in Omaha,” head coach Tony Vitello said to the crowd. “My promise to you is that you will witness a successful Tennessee baseball team while you are a student at this university.”
Thus far, Vitello is seemingly progressing well towards fulfilling that promise as the Vols finished third in the east last year and have gained quite the national attention by media outlets this preseason.
The Volunteers will open the season with a four game homestand with three games against Western Illinois beginning on Valentine’s Day before finishing off with a midweek game against UNC-Charlotte on Tuesday, Feb. 18.
After the short home stand, UT will head to Round Rock, Texas where they will participate in a tournament against some of the top competition in the country as they will face No.6 Texas Tech, Houston and No.17 Stanford. That tournament will run from Feb. 21 through the 23.
“We want to get on the road each year and challenge ourselves early in the season before diving into SEC play,” Vitello said when asked why the team was travelling to Round Rock. “If you aren’t ready then SEC play will punch you in the gut, then in the jaw, and then in the back of the head, so we want to do our best to prepare our team for what is coming.”
Tennessee will return to Rocky Top for ten straight home games as they begin with Northern Kentucky on Feb. 25, then move on to host UNC-Asheville the next day. That weekend will see George Washington University visit campus as the Vols will play three against the Colonials from Feb. 28 to March 1.
The Longville Lancers will stop by for a midweek game before the Vols play host to the Wright State. Tennessee will end the long home stand with a game against east Tennessee rival ETSU on March 10.
UT will then move into the heat of its schedule as they quickly begin SEC play with a series on the road in Columbia to face South Carolina.
The first big home series of the season will come on March 20 as the preseason poll No. 2 and the reigning national champions Vanderbilt Commodores come to town for a three-game series as Tennessee hopes to steal a series win from the ‘Dores in an important early SEC matchup.
“It’s awesome to have Vandy at home,” Crochet said. “The reigning national champs and then to have LSU at home too. I’m kind of trying to bounce back from my freshman year where my first appearance against them didn’t go so well.”
Following the Vanderbilt series, the Vols will head 30 minutes east to Kodak, Tennessee as they will take on the UT-Martin Skyhawks at the home of the Tennessee Smokies, the Chicago Cubs’ AA team, on March 24.
From there Tennessee will continue on with SEC play with a few midweek games sprinkled in as they will take on LSU at home along with Missouri and Alabama on the road. The midweek games will see match-ups with Georgia Southern and Alabama State as well as welcoming the Alabama A&M Bulldogs to town.
Following bouts of SEC play, the Vols will see a key matchup on April 17 as the preseason No. 4 Florida Gators come to Rocky Top to play three games against the Volunteers. This could be a crucial series for the possession of the east as the Gators have recently made a name for themselves on the diamond as they won their first national championship in 2017.
The Vols will host Morehead State following the series against UF before leaving Knoxville to head to Athens, GA to take on the Georgia Bulldogs. Tennessee will return to Lindsey Nelson Stadium three days later with a matchup against mid-state foe Lipscomb before hosting the Kentucky that weekend.
After the Kentucky series the Vols will enter the homestretch as they play their last road series in College Station as they travel to face Texas A&M before returning home to face Belmont in a midweek matchup. Tennessee will wrap up its regular season with a series against Arkansas with senior day coming on May 16.
The Vols then look to move on to their second consecutive SEC tournament which will be hosted in Hoover, Alabama which will run from May 19-24. From there, the NCAA tournament will begin as teams progress through the regional stage onto super regionals where the winners left will move on to the College World Series.
The Tennessee baseball team will look to build upon its successful season in 2019 as they begin their 2020 campaign with three national award winners on the roster. Head coach Tony Vitello will do his best to coach the Vols into fulfilling a promise Vitello made to the class of 2023 where he stated they will be able to witness the Vols playing in Omaha before they graduate.