Tennessee’s Fight Pays Off With 2024 College World Series Title


Some national championships come as coronations, teams rolling through the College World Series finals to the trophy presentation. Some national championships, however, are ground out; every out, every run is fought for.

Tennessee had to fight for the 2024 national title. It won more games this season than any team in the last 22 years and collected every trophy it could have. Yet, every step of the way, it had to fight.

The Volunteers didn’t win the SEC regular season title until the final day of the season. They lost their opening game of the SEC Tournament, sending them through the loser’s bracket. They were forced to a Game 3 in super regionals by Evansville, the Cinderella of the NCAA Tournament. Tennessee then lost the opening game of the CWS championship series to Texas A&M, pressing its backs against the wall.

Even before this season, it was a fight for the program. Tennessee was making its third appearance in the CWS in the last four years but had gone 0-2 in 2021 and 1-2 in 2023. In between, the 2022 team was the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament but was upset at home by Notre Dame in super regionals.

So, of course, Game 3 of the championship series on Monday didn’t come easy. Tennessee never trailed on the night, thanks in part to a leadoff home run from Christian Moore. But every time it pushed ahead, A&M punched back. Even Tennessee’s runs didn’t come easily, especially its sixth run, which proved decisive. On that play, Hunter Ensley had to make a last-second adjustment in his dive into home plate to avoid getting tagged.

But, in the end, Tennessee found a way, just like it has all season long. The Volunteers held on to defeat the Aggies, 6-5, and win the first national championship in program history.

“No better team to win for the University of Tennessee than a bunch of guys who were truly the definition of a team,” Vols coach Tony Vitello said. “And no better play for our program to, I think, be the winning run on that slide, a guy that’s just built with a ton of grit. His teammates follow his leadership and it’s a great example of how this group got things done.”

This Tennessee team is arguably the greatest team in college baseball history. It finished the season 60-13, setting an SEC record for overall wins. It is the first team to win 60 games in a season since Florida State in 2002, and it won more games than any national champion since Wichita State in 1989, which went 68-16 in a very different era of the sport. The Volunteers won both the SEC regular-season and tournament titles. They had one losing weekend all year and none since the middle of March (which was also the only time they lost consecutive games all season). By the end, Tennessee was the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament and the first No. 1 overall seed to win the national championship since Miami in 1999.

The Volunteers have star power at the heart of the team. All-American second baseman Christian Moore will be a first round draft selection next month and possibly a top 10 pick. Third baseman Billy Amick won’t have to wait much longer to hear his name. Left fielder Dylan Dreiling, the College World Series Most Outstanding Player, has played his way up draft boards, while righthander Drew Beam and All-American first baseman Blake Burke will probably be second rounders and go down as two of the best players at their positions in program history.

In short, there will be big leaguers from this team. But that was never the story of the 2024 Volunteers. In his six years in Knoxville, Vitello has coached teams with more talent than this one. Just two years removed, that 2022 squad already has three big leaguers with more to come.

What this year’s Volunteers mastered, however, was the perfect blend of talent and grit, an attitude that Vitello has tried to instill from the day he was hired. When he arrived at Tennessee in the summer of 2017, Tennessee was stuck near the bottom of the SEC standings. It had made the SEC Tournament just three times in the previous 10 years and hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2005.

Vitello, a first-time head coach, knew Tennessee needed to find an identity to compete in the rugged SEC. Tennessee at the time couldn’t match facilities with Arkansas or Mississippi State. It didn’t have LSU’s tradition. It couldn’t lean into in-state players like Florida or Texas A&M.

What Vitello settled on was building a gritty program that played with an edge. That directed his hires, from assistant coaches Frank Anderson and Josh Elander, who have been with him throughout his tenure, to support staff like Quentin Eberhardt, the program’s director of sports performance. It also guided their efforts in recruiting and in practice.

The final result was an attitude on full display in the 2024 team and embodied in players like Ensley, Moore and lefthander Zander Sechrist, who started and won Monday’s game.

“We gotta play with some attitude,” Vitello said. “We gotta play with some grit. And we’re going to have to get some guys that maybe don’t want to say yes to a school with a better winning record than us. Guys like that, like (Moore) and some others with some attitude, have done a lot for this program.”

That attitude, that grit is what led Ensley to crash into the center field fence at full speed to make a catch last Sunday. He was shaken up on the play and had to be replaced in center field the next game by Kavares Tears. He, too, barreled into the wall to make a catch.

“It’s the way I grew up, (with a) blue-collar family,” Ensley said. “My whole family is just tough. Growing up with them, that was kind of what was preached. You show up every day you work hard, you play hard and if it doesn’t go your way, work harder and do better.

“Obviously in center field I’m willing to run through a wall for this team. I would do it a million times over.”

The mindset instilled in the program isn’t just limited to grit or an edge. The Volunteers were also a close-knit group who loved playing together and for their coaches. That camaraderie ran through the program, helping to get contributions from up and down the roster.

Sechrist was one such player.

A senior who makes his living on pitchability rather than pure stuff, he worked his way into the rotation and eventually became the team’s best pitcher down the stretch. On Monday, he held A&M to one run in 5.1 innings. He struck out seven and worked around six hits and a walk. Tennessee won each of his last six starts, a run in which he pitched to a 1.34 ERA beginning on the final day of the regular season against South Carolina.

Sechrist is one of the few players who were a part of all three CWS teams in the last four years. He said the 2024 team stood out from any he played for.

“We had unfinished business, especially this being the third time we’ve been here in the last four years,” he said. “’21 we didn’t do well. ’22 you could arguably say that was the best college baseball team ever. ’23 we got to experience winning at least a game here, but the job wasn’t finished. And ’24 just felt a little different.

“I’m just blessed today to get the job done.”

Monday night’s win took a little bit of everything from the roster. Eight players had at least one hit. Dreiling homered again, becoming the first player to homer in every game of a CWS finals. Moore capped one of the greatest seasons in program history with a home run. Sechrist turned in another strong start and the bullpen held off a powerful, determined A&M lineup.

It ended with a raucous celebration. Vitello leapt into the stands to celebrate with Tennessee fans. Peyton Manning came onto the field to soak in the atmosphere. Players hugged each other and did snow angels in confetti.

It was the perfect ending for a team that has fought for each other for five long months. Throughout the CWS, the Volunteers have talked about just wanting to soak up the moments and enjoy their last couple weeks together.

The Volunteers certainly enjoyed it Monday night. As a result, they’ll be forever linked together in Tennessee and college baseball history.

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