Image credit: Luc Lipcius (Danny Parker/Four Seam Images)
Tennessee this spring took college baseball by storm. The Volunteers started the season 31-1. They set a record for the longest winning streak to open SEC play at 12. They won the SEC title going away, finishing six games ahead of Texas A&M, the SEC West Division champion. They coupled that with an SEC Tournament title, sweeping through the event.
Tennessee swept then-No. 1 Mississippi. It swept Vanderbilt. It swept Florida. It ended the season for Mississippi State, the reigning national champion. The Volunteers led the nation in home runs and ERA. They had the deepest lineup and the best pitching staff in the country. They were a juggernaut.
Tennessee had incredible talent. Its whole rotation—righthanders Chase Dollander, Chase Burns and Drew Beam—was this summer invited to USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. Preseason All-American righthander Blade Tidwell overcame an injury that cost him the first half of the season to become one of the team’s most impactful pitchers. Closer Redmond Walsh set the program’s career save record and first baseman Luc Lipcius set the program’s career home run record, both breaking marks held by Todd Helton. Flamethrower Ben Joyce routinely hit as high as 103 mph on the radar gun. Third baseman Trey Lipscomb and outfielders Jordan Beck and Drew Gilbert blossomed into premium prospects.
Somewhere along the way, Tennessee also became the villains of college baseball, a role it was fine with playing. The Volunteers celebrated their home runs with a mink coat. They were loud, brash and confident. Controversy followed, but it only seemed to further fuel their fire.
Tennessee entered the NCAA Tournament as the runaway favorite to win the national championship. And the Volunteers remained the favorites right up until Sunday afternoon when they lost to Notre Dame, 7-3, in the decisive third game of the Knoxville Super Regional.
Notre Dame dogpiled in front of a stunned crowd of 4,590 fans at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. The Fighting Irish are going to the College World Series for the first time since 2002 and the third time ever. Tennessee’s historic season, one that held the promise of the program’s first-ever national championship, is over.
The Volunteers finished the season 57-9. They went 25-5 in SEC play and won the regular season and tournament titles for the first time since 1995. It’s a team that won’t soon be forgotten in Knoxville.
“(Coach Tony Vitello) just told us that the season was absolutely amazing, and we should never forget or feel bad about how far we’ve come,” Lipcius said. “You can see that there’s so much emotion within that group of guys because everyone loves everyone, everyone is such a good guy and then you have him, and he’s the most passionate of the bunch. You want to go to war with him and every single one around you.
“But it’s just a fantastic team and absolutely and unforgettable one.”
The No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament has not won the national championship since 1999. Tennessee is the third straight runaway top seed to lose in super regionals, joining 2021 Arkansas and 2019 UCLA.
Notre Dame came to Knoxville uniquely positioned to take down Tennessee. The Fighting Irish are a veteran, experienced team. Eight of their nine regulars are college graduates. They last year played a super regional in Starkville and pushed Mississippi State, the eventual national champion, to the brink. They were road tested and this series marked the 10th weekend this season that they spent on the road. Their flexible roles on the pitching staff promised to give Tennessee a variety of looks on the mound. Their offense could be aggressive on the bases, putting pressure on the Volunteers’ defense in a way many teams can’t. They weren’t going to beat themselves, as their .980 fielding percentage ranks 13th nationally.
More than anything, Notre Dame was loose and wasn’t going to be intimidated by the atmosphere or the opponent it encountered in Knoxville.
“When you have exceptional character and makeup and focus on what they’re doing—the baseball talent you could see firsthand,” Notre Dame coach Link Jarrett said. “When you combine that, and I told them today, there’s no team I’ve ever coached that’s more built for this moment than these guys.
“The versatility of the team. The unselfishness of the pitching staff. The way they engage in anything they feel like might need to be done to win a game. Never seen anything like it.”
Notre Dame needed all that Sunday. After the Irish won Friday’s opener, 8-6, the Volunteers on Saturday forced a third game with a 12-4 victory. The first two games were chaotic. Gilbert and pitching coach Frank Anderson were ejected in Friday’s game after Gilbert argued with the home plate umpire. Both were suspended, Gilbert for one game and Anderson for three. Saturday was a more typical Tennessee win, as the Volunteers hit four home runs to set up Sunday’s finale.
After Friday’s stunner, the momentum of the series had swung back to Tennessee and the Volunteers capitalized on that with a solo home run from Lipcius in the first inning. Notre Dame evened the score in the top of the second inning, but Tennessee again pushed ahead in the bottom of the inning. The Volunteers added a run in the third and Burns did his best to keep them in control. For six innings, he stymied Notre Dame. The Irish managed just two hits and a walk and got just one runner into scoring position.
But in the seventh, the game changed in a hurry. Carter Putz hit a one-out double, ending a string of nine straight batters retired by Burns. He got the next batter to pop out, bringing fifth-year catcher David LaManna to the plate. Down in the count 0-1, LaManna drove a ball the opposite way, sending it sailing just over the short right field porch for a two-run home run. It was just his second home run of the season and first since April 23.
Suddenly, the game was tied. It didn’t stay that way for long. Four pitches later, Jack Brannigan hammered a home run of his own to left-center field and Notre Dame had a 4-3 lead, its first lead since Friday night. Notre Dame would score three more runs in the eighth, stifling any hope of a comeback for Tennessee.
Jarrett didn’t think it was a coincidence that Notre Dame finished the game so well, as the Irish focus on the final hour of games.
“I looked at that clock and when LaManna hit that ball, it was 3:06 p.m.,” he said. “That last hour, I just can’t express how tough they are in the last hour of these games.”
So often this season, Tennessee had dominated the final innings of games, either slamming the door on its opponent or mounting a late comeback of its own. The Volunteers were 49-0 going into Sunday in games they led after six innings. But Notre Dame pierced that invincibility Sunday and Tennessee had no answer after falling behind.
Notre Dame freshman lefthander Jack Findlay, who spent most of the year as a starter before turning into the Irish closer down the stretch, threw the final five innings. He held Tennessee scoreless, limiting the Volunteers to one hit and two walks, striking out four. Any time Tennessee tried to start a rally, Findlay had an answer. That lasted until the end of the ninth, when, after a five-pitch walk, the lefthander rolled a double play ball to end the game.
A year after Notre Dame’s disappointment in Starkville and 20 years after it last advanced to the College World Series, the Irish dogpiled. Across the field, the Volunteers were left to try to make sense of how their special season had met an untimely end.
For months, Tennessee was not only the best team in college baseball, it was the story of college baseball. The Volunteers’ incredible record, their phenomenal talent and brash attitude made for must-see TV. But college baseball is unrelenting, its postseason format a grind that tests teams in numerous ways.
This weekend, Tennessee stumbled at the final hurdle on the Road to Omaha. The home run mink coat will get hung back up in the closet and “Rocky Top” will fade from the air. The party in Knoxville, at least for this season, has come to an abrupt end.