Tennessee haters, you got your wish: Party's over for college baseball's bad boys
That round of applause you just heard was from 49 states not named “Tennessee.”
Oh, that round of applause is still going? It’s a standing ovation that’ll dip into the start of the College World Series every time Notre Dame is spotted in Omaha?
Yep. Down go the villains. Up go the haters of this 2022 version of Tennessee baseball, of which there were many (“Tennessee” was trending nationally on Twitter following Sunday’s season-ending loss in the Super Regionals).
The No. 1 overall seed is gone, and not without a fight. Drew Gilbert’s return couldn’t spark the Vols, and there were only so many home runs in the bat of Luc Lipcius.
Upset of the year? Sure. Tennessee baseball might have been as brash as they come, but for all of their daddy hat-wearing, bat-flipping controversial ways, they were also as solid as they come. This was the team that entered the weekend with just 7 losses all year thanks to the nation’s top-ranked offense and pitching staff.
Of course, by another trend, perhaps this should’ve been expected. In the 21 College World Series of the 21st century, no top overall seed has won it all. Tennessee couldn’t do what 1999 Miami did. Shoot, it couldn’t even do what 2021 Tennessee did. That is, make it to Omaha.
The large anti-Tennessee crowd will say that hubris got in the way of Tennessee’s title run. They’ll say that it was Gilbert’s ejection on Friday night that did in the Vols, even though Tennessee actually played its best game of the series when he was suspended for Saturday’s series-evening win. The Vols also got their best start of the series with pitching coach Frank Anderson sidelined for his role in Friday night’s dustup.
But really, we aren’t having this conversation if Tennessee just keeps 2 late-inning fastballs lower in the zone instead of leaving them elevated. That’s what led to back-t0-back Notre Dame home runs in the 7th. If Saturday was Tennessee’s championship-level response to having its back against the ropes, Notre Dame’s 7th inning on Sunday was the 1-2 combination that knocked Tennessee out for good.
That’s how quick these things can happen. Welcome to life on top. Tennessee got Notre Dame’s best shot. Quite simply, Tony Vitello’s team couldn’t handle it.
Someone was always going to get the last laugh. To the surprise of no one, public sympathy did not side with the team with the cheetah coat celebration who was known to rile up an opposing dugout or two. Public sympathy sided with literally anybody but the Vols.
So the real question is simple — should Tennessee have toned it down to harness its best version of itself?
On second thought, that question isn’t simple. It’s too easy to play the results in a case like this when reality is, Notre Dame played 2 excellent games and showed resiliency in a raucous atmosphere. Championships are won because of plays like the one David LaManna made, wherein he went with an outside fastball the opposite way and took advantage of Tennessee’s 320-foot short porch in right field.
TOP 7 | WE ARE TIED!!!!!!!@david_lamanna HITS A TWO-RUN BLAST!!!!!
ND 3, UT 3
— Notre Dame Baseball (@NDBaseball) June 12, 2022
Narratives don’t win or lose titles. This wasn’t an issue of not wanting it badly enough or wanting it too bad. Had Tennessee been the last team standing in Omaha, we would’ve all pointed to how dominant the program was with its unapologetic identity in the regular season and claimed that was at the root of its first national title.
Fair or not, that was always going to be Tennessee’s reality. The Vols could’ve lost in extra innings of an elimination game in the national championship, and some would’ve still said that cockiness was their undoing. That’s what they signed up for. They knew that. Part of what made them great up until this weekend was that they didn’t hide from that. You don’t reach a Super Regional with 7 losses coming out of the SEC if you don’t know how to take all of that outside noise in stride.
But that’s not what the outside world will choose to remember about this Tennessee team. They’ll choose to remember the team that came off like it had been there before even though it hadn’t. That’s really what this comes down to. If the Vols were this traditional power with a trophy case full of national titles, they wouldn’t have become as polarizing as they were. On the flip side, if they weren’t historically dominant, they wouldn’t have allowed themselves to take on that identity.
Go figure that Tennessee might’ve been better suited for a late-inning comeback had it not been such a force in the regular season. The Vols were 49-0 when leading after 6 innings. All it took was 1 inning in 1 do-or-die game to change that.
The Tennessee faithful will always have a bittersweet memory of the 2022 Vols. We’ll never know how Vitello’s squad would’ve handled a return trip to Omaha with its Super Regional drama in the rearview mirror.
The only way Tennessee was ever going to quiet the haters was by being perfect this postseason. It had a chance to become what the late-80s Bad Boy Detroit Pistons were. They could’ve shifted the power dynamics of the sport and rustled the feathers of the purists. For awhile, it appeared Tennessee was on its way to doing that. Maybe there will come a day when Vitello and the Vols are the last ones standing in Omaha.
But for now, 49 other states will rejoice in the stunner on Rocky Top.