CLEMSON, S.C. – On April 18, Tennessee lost at home to Tennessee Tech, 12-5. It was a difficult loss that dropped the Volunteers to 23-14 on the season and extended their losing streak to four games. They had just been swept at Arkansas and were just 5-10 in SEC play at the midpoint of the conference season.
It was the low point of the season for Tennessee. The Volunteers had started the year No. 2 in the Top 25, a lofty ranking, yes, but one that seemed reasonable for a team that had been the runaway SEC champions in 2022 and returned the nation’s top rotation. Instead, nothing came easy in the first two months of the season for Tennessee. On that day in mid April, it wasn’t unreasonable to wonder if the Volunteers would ever put everything together.
Nearly two months later, Tennessee on Sunday celebrated winning the Clemson Regional at Doug Kingsmore Stadium. The Volunteers beat Charlotte, 9-2, in the final, completing a sweep of the weekend. For the third straight season, Tennessee is headed to super regionals and for the first time in program history, it’s doing so after going on the road for regionals.
Things are coming a bit easier for Tennessee now, as the Volunteers have found their identity as a team unique from last year’s behemoth. But they had to fight in Clemson. They twice beat Charlotte, which came into the weekend hot after winning the Conference USA Tournament, and on Saturday fought off Clemson, which was on a 17-game winning streak and was the No. 4 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, to win the game of the year, 6-5, in 14 innings.
After fighting as hard as they did in Clemson and throughout the season, coach Tony Vitello said the Volunteers had earned the opportunity to savor this year’s regional win.
“It needs to be enjoyed more because it was challenging,” he said. “We’ve said that in team meetings, that when things are difficult and you have to really work for something, it makes it sweeter. And then I also think it prepares you a little bit better.”
The early season challenges and a difficult SEC slate had Tennessee plenty prepared for what it faced in Clemson. After beating Charlotte, 8-1, in Friday’s opener, it advanced in the winner’s bracket to take on Clemson. The Volunteers trailed for much of that game and were down to their final strike twice in the ninth inning and appeared to get walked off in the 10th inning before replay overturned the call on the field. Tennessee persevered through it all and came away with a thrilling, 6-5, victory.
Sunday’s final against Charlotte was a bit more straight forward. Christian Moore gave Tennessee an early lead with a second-inning home run and it never looked back. Righthander Drew Beam was excellent, holding the 49ers to two runs on four hits and no walks in six innings. He struck out 10 batters. Relievers Camden Sewell and AJ Russell combined for three scoreless innings and the Volunteers rolled to victory.
Moore went 2-for-2 with two home runs and a walk on the day and was 7-for-10 with two doubles and four homers on the weekend. He was voted most outstanding player of the regional.
Moore has risen to the occasion throughout the year. He is hitting .321/.466/.647 with 17 home runs and leads the Volunteers in OPS (1.113). At this stage of the season, however, he made it clear that he’s not worried about his own numbers.
“It was a good weekend but at the end of the day, all I want to do now is win, each and every day,” he said. “Survive and advance. Whether that’s I go 2-for-2 with some home runs or I go 0-for-4 with four Ks, whatever I can do to help this team win. We’re in the postseason now. You win, you advance; you lose, you go home. So just keep winning, that’s kind of been my mindset going into this weekend and the weekend we have next weekend.”
Tennessee also got a big weekend from its pitching staff, which held Charlotte and Clemson to a total of eight runs in 34 innings. Collectively, the Volunteers struck out 41 batters and worked around 25 hits and 11 walks.
The Volunteers got quality starts against Charlotte from righthanders Andrew Lindsey (7 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 10 K) and Drew Beam (6 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 0 BB, 10 K). Righthander Chase Dollander (4.1 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 2 BB, 4 K) wasn’t as sharp against Clemson, but relievers Chase Burns (6.1 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 4 BB, 8 K) and Seth Halvorsen (3.1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 3 K) picked him up.
All weekend long, Tennessee ran out power arm after power arm. It was an impressive display of talent and helped power the Volunteers to victory. It was the kind of performance that coming into the year Tennessee was expected to be able to put on every weekend.
Sometimes it just takes teams time to mesh and gel. The Volunteers needed to go through their ups and downs to find the right mix, both in the lineup and on the mound. A tumultuous first half of the season has given rise to a force to be reckoned with.
Vitello said he’s enjoyed the process of the Volunteers’ growth and development as a group.
“For this group, everything starting back in August when things were kind of awkward and it was like, ‘Where is this going?’ ” he said. “It’s truly been a cliche of a journey and I think it’s still moving forward.”
Tennessee now moves on to super regionals where it will face the winner of the Auburn Regional, either Southern Miss or Pennsylvania. The Golden Eagles and Quakers on Monday will play a decisive final. The location of that super regional will be determined by the selection committee in the days to come, with the Volunteers all but certain to host if Penn wins and the decision likely closer to a toss-up if Southern Miss wins.
No matter where the Volunteers are playing next weekend, however, they’re going to be playing with plenty of confidence and momentum. Since that loss to Tennessee Tech, Tennessee is 18-5 and has lost consecutive games just once. With a College World Series appearance now just two wins away, the Volunteers have found their stride at the right time.
“I think for our guys, their confidence has been growing as the year went on,” Vitello said. “I know they believed in themselves even though we were coming to a national seed’s site and a place that is always rowdy to play in no matter who the opponent is.
“(I’m) grateful to be around good players that make you look smart.”