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Front Page - Friday, June 10, 2022

UT sports: Focus flips to Super Regional with hot Vols hosting Irish

“I don’t think we fear many people,” junior outfielder Jordan Beck says of the No.1-seeded Vols. - Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com

Controversy, comebacks, middle fingers and a lot of runs.

Tennessee baseball’s opening weekend of the NCAA tournament featured a little bit of everything.

The top-seeded Vols went 3-0 to win their regional at Lindsey Nelson Stadium, staging comebacks and getting strong relief pitching in their final two games to advance to the Super Regional for the second straight season.

Tennessee (56-7) will host Notre Dame (38-14) in a three-game series this weekend for a shot to return to the College World Series in Omaha. The Fighting Irish emerged from the Statesboro Regional after host Georgia Southern was eliminated early.

The Vols set a program record for wins in a season over the weekend and had to erase back-to-back four-run deficits against Campbell and Georgia Tech in the regional to advance. They exploded for a six-run ninth inning to beat the Yellow Jackets 9-6 in the clincher Sunday.

“I think the regional was what it was supposed to be – a bunch of teams with really good offenses,” says UT head coach Tony Vitello. “Our team was challenged to the fullest. It’ll make us better.”

In Corvallis, Oregon, Vanderbilt was eliminated by No. 3 Oregon State 7-6 in the regional final Monday. The Commodores stranded a runner on second in the ninth to the loss to the host Beavers.

Vanderbilt (39-23) dropped its opening game in the regional but fought through the loser’s bracket to force a winner-take-all elimination game after beating Oregon State 8-1.

It marked the end of an uncharacteristic season of struggle for the perennially successful Vandy program.

Before the first pitch was even thrown in Knoxville, the action on the field became largely overshadowed by a controversy off the field.

Catcher Evan Russell wasn’t in the lineup for Tennessee’s regional opener. Vitello told reporters after the game that Russell was sick, but the speculation from outsiders had already started running wild.

ESPN announcer Troy Eklund broadcast a false report that Russell was suspended from the tournament for using performance-enhancing drugs. Eklund, a former Arkansas baseball player, made the unsubstantiated claim during Friday’s broadcast of an Oklahoma State-Missouri State game.

Tennessee vehemently denied the report and demanded an apology from ESPN, which Eklund eventually issued Saturday.

Russell’s father provided the real reason for his son’s absence, saying in a social media post that Russell has “been dealing with anxiety, stress and pressure.” Russell was back in uniform for the final two games, and fans chanted his name Sunday.

Although Tennessee didn’t dominate from start to finish in every game of the regional, the Vols were pleased with their response.

They received impressive relief performances from Kirby Connell and Will Mabrey. Connell gave up three hits and two runs in 4.0 innings to earn the win over Campbell and Mabrey didn’t allow a run in 3.2 innings while striking out five against Georgia Tech.

“I don’t think we fear many people,” says Jordan Beck, who drove in the game-tying RBI double against Georgia Tech Sunday. “Even when we’re down, it just gives us motivation. The games are more fun when they’re close, and it brings the competitiveness out of us.”

Beck caused a stir of his own after his big hit. As he rounded first, Beck appeared to flip his middle finger in the direction of the Georgia Tech outfielders.

“I was super excited,” Beck says. “I had a little bit of a blackout moment. I was just happy I hit a flush barrel. I didn’t know if it was getting over the guy’s head or not.”

The Vols provided the entertainment and drama while playing in front of more sellout crowds for all three regional games.

Tennessee baseball has been the hottest sports ticket in the city for the last two years, and the athletic department wants to upgrade the experience.

Before the regional started last week, Tennessee Athletics revealed renovation plans for the stadium.

UT released renderings of the potential renovations that include expanded seating, wider concourses, new premium sections as well as more concession stands and restrooms.

The changes will not be made before the 2023 season, and total capacity for the stadium has not been set.

The university is seeking feedback from fans about what type of seating options they would want to purchase and which renovations should be prioritized.

“My phone was blowing up and I think everyone is very impressed,” Vitello says. “It’s hard to get into the exact details right now of ‘What’s this road going to be called?’ but just to see the grand scale of it lets people know how serious everyone around here is in investing in baseball.”

Vitello received another message on his phone after UT beat Georgia Tech and advanced to the Super Regional.

“I’m gonna go humblebrag. I’m just gonna throw it out there. The only reason I know we’re playing Notre Dame is one text message, and that was from Peyton Manning,” Vitello says. “So thank you for sending it, Peyton. I’m not gonna say thank you for letting us know who we’re playing.”

Although Vitello wasn’t happy with the mistakes the Vols made during regional play, he was pleased they found a way to keep winning. He knows that resiliency will be needed the deeper they go in the tournament.

“It’s survive-and-advance time of the year, and that’s what these guys did,” he says. “I think there’s a little something to this group where if there’s something that goes wrong, they kind of rally around each other. I’m fortunate to be a part of it.”