From being in the conversation as potentially the greatest college baseball team of all time to not even making it to the College World Series.
Tennessee’s season came to an abrupt and somewhat stunning end Sunday when Notre Dame upset the top-seeded Vols in a winner-take-all Game 3 of the Knoxville Super Regional at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
The Irish rallied late for a 7-3 win to deny Tennessee a return trip to Omaha and prolong the No. 1-seed jinx in NCAA Division I baseball.
The Vols are the third straight No. 1 national seed to get eliminated in the super regionals, and fifth in the past eight NCAA tournaments to not reach the College World Series.
The only No. 1 seed to ever win the College World Series was Miami in 1999.
“It’s obviously emotional, and our guys have their thoughts on Nebraska, which is what all kids do this time of the year. Really all kids just in general,” UT head coach Tony Vitello says. “I think we got stunned a couple of times. That’s nothing new in my opinion. So when that happened, maybe some things showed up that you saw that weren’t crisp.”
Before the major upset, Tennessee (57-9) had put together one of the best seasons in college baseball history.
The Vols finished with a school-record 57 wins, including a 31-1 start. They swept the SEC regular-season and tournament titles, and led the nation in home runs and ERA throughout most of the season.
But instead of boarding a flight to Omaha, the Vols will need to begin preparing for the future much sooner than they envisioned.
They will be losing some major pieces to the program’s recent success through graduation and the Major League Baseball draft.
Junior Jordan Beck, sophomore Blake Tidwell, junior Drew Gilbert, redshirt junior Ben Joyce and senior Trey Lipscomb will likely be leaving for the draft. Beck, Tidwell and Gilbert are potential first-round selections.
Junior Cortland Lawson and redshirt sophomore Jorel Ortega could be drafted and would have a decision to make, depending on how high they go.
Evan Russell, Luc Lipcius, Redmond Walsh, Camden Sewell and the other seniors will be departing.
Although the talent and veteran experience will be tough to replace, there is an incoming freshman class that is stocked with potential.
Tennessee should be very strong in the circle again with a plethora of high-quality arms on the roster.
Sophomore Chase Dollander (10-0, 2.39 ERA), freshman Chase Burns (8-2, 2.91), freshman Drew Beam (8-1, 2.72), junior Kirby Connell (4-0, 1.66) and junior Will Mabrey (2-0, 2.63) all had strong seasons.
Redshirt junior pitcher Seth Halvorsen, a transfer from Missouri, was sidelined with a fractured elbow. His addition to the rotation should be a huge boost for the Vols.
That said, Tennessee has already dipped into the transfer portal again to restock the roster with more are likely coming. Kansas shortstop Maui Ahuna committed to Tennessee last week while making a visit to Knoxville.
Ahuna was one of the top players in the transfer portal. The 6-foot-1, All-Big 12 first-team selection hit .396 with eight home runs and 48 RBIs as a sophomore for the Jayhawks last season.
The results on the field since Vitello arrived have been a good sales pitch for transfers, but he knows it takes more to lure high-level prospects.
“We get our recruits around our players so they can hear it straight from their mouths,” he says. “And I think one thing you will hear from our players – just like our coaches like working around each other – they enjoy being with each other.
“That’s not why everyone leaves their current situation, because they weren’t enjoying it, but that’s a box that I think needs to be checked.”
Entering the postseason, Tennessee was a near unanimous lock to make it to Omaha. Few thought the Vols would be eliminated at all, yet alone at home.
But the unseeded Irish didn’t let the odds discourage them after going on the road to win a regional in Statesboro, Georgia, a week before. They surprised the Vols with a Game 1 win and then rallied from 3-1 down in the seventh in the final game.
Tennessee had been 49-0 when leading after six innings until Notre Dame ended the streak at the worst possible time.
For the seniors who helped quickly build UT from a baseball afterthought to a polarizing title-contending program, the end hit like a gut punch. Vitello tried to put their contributions into perspective in the immediate aftermath.
“He said we put them in a really good position to keep this dynasty going,” Lipcius says. “So much emotion because everyone loves everyone. A fantastic team and an unforgettable one.”
The memories will linger for many months and years to come. They will wonder what could have happened with a team that seemed destined for a CWS title.
The Vols ignited a passionate fan base, re-wrote the record books and gained national attention. But they fell short of their ultimate goal and the chance to cement a legacy in college baseball lore. Flights and hotel rooms had to be canceled and CWS tickets went on resale for other fans to purchase.
It was an agonizing exit for another No. 1 seed in a sport known for its fickle postseason.
“I would like to make it automatic,” Vitello says of reaching the CWS. “I’d like to be able to recruit that well. I certainly can’t coach that well, but it isn’t automatic. Ask any team in the country that gets there or has ever played there or has ever come up short. It is not automatic.”