There is an old SEC football belief that you find out how good a new head coach is going to be by his second season. If you hold that same belief in baseball, it's safe to say Tennessee has a pretty good coach in Tony Vitello.
Tennessee’s 2019 season was its best in 14 years. The Vols won 40 games and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2005 Vols made the College World Series.
“Whole reason I came here,” pitcher Will Heflin said following the Vols 5-2 season ending loss to North Carolina. “Whole reason I came to Tennessee. We wanted to win today, but we’re going to focus on what we did this season, and that’s lay some bricks for the future to come. The guys that will return next year will continue that… It’s going to be a really exciting time around Knoxville for baseball.”
And an exciting season it was for the Vols. Tennessee jumped out to its best start in school history, swept a road SEC series for the first time since 2010, and made it back to the SEC series.
However, it wasn’t without some bumps in the road. Tennessee was swept in its opening SEC series, and at one point lost six out of seven SEC games as it appeared that the Vols wouldn’t end its NCAA Tournament drought. However, Tennessee would bounce back from that tough stretch to win four of its final five SEC games, including series wins at Florida and against Ole Miss.
“That’s been the most impressive part of the group,” head coach Tony Vitello said. “There is some skill there, coach (Dave) Serrano’s staff, our staff we’ve brought in some guys that can play a little bit, but what got our program to the point that we’re talking about some good stuff in the future hopefully, or at least some accomplishments this year was that ability to respond.”
As successful as the season was for Tennessee there is still plenty of work to be done going forward. Despite the major improvements Tennessee just finished ninth in the SEC and didn’t win a game in the SEC Tournament.
Five Tennessee players have been selected in the MLB Draft, including two starting pitchers and the Vols’ star third baseman Andre Lipcius. However, Tennessee returns nearly every major position player and some talented young pitchers.
Garrett Crochet and Camden Sewell should continue to develop into top-end SEC weekend starters and closer Redmond Walsh, who posted a 1.38 ERA in 2019, will return.
The diamond isn’t the only place Tennessee will need to continue to improve as the Vols’ facilities remain one of the worst in the SEC. Tennessee put in a new state-of-the-art turf field this season, but they will need to continue to improve the baseball facilities to catch up to the rest of the league.
Vitello will remain a hot commodity in the coaching world and schools will inevitably make a run at the Vols’ young head coach. The coming weeks will be telling for the commitment Tennessee has to turning its baseball program into one that can compete with anyone in the SEC.
2019 was a banner year for the Tennessee baseball program and the future appears to be bright, but if the Vols want sustained success, financial investments must be made to pay Vitello and improve facilities.