Tony Vitello’s Vols are in the College World Series again, proving ‘goofy’ goes a long way

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee senior pitcher Zander Sechrist had given up six hits and one run, unearned, striking out six and walking none, in six innings Sunday night in the most important situation he had faced in his career.

That made it his finest baseball moment to date. That made it a Tennessee postseason performance to be remembered. That made it impossible for Vols coach Tony Vitello to relieve him after six, even though Sechrist was at 100 pitches — two shy of his career high — and has spent all but the last chapter of his career as a short-stint, medium-leverage, joke-cracking, beloved middle reliever.

No, Sechrist had to come out for the seventh inning of this gem, which delivered a 12-1 win for the Vols over Evansville in the deciding game of the Knoxville Super Regional, avoiding an all-time upset and earning Tennessee its third College World Series appearance in four years. And then Vitello had to go get him after two more pitches and another out and let the Lindsey Nelson Stadium crowd of 6,489 shower him with the praise he deserved. And he did.

“It was unreal,” said Sechrist, who was so poised in this performance, that teammates in the dugout were jokingly asking if he was “too goofy” to understand the stakes at hand.

“He wanted to walk off the field,” Vitello said of Sechrist, who did campaign to return for the seventh. “The guy, this is his home. It’s like that for every kid wherever they’re at, but he did take a long time in recruiting and he chose this to be his home. There’s good times and there’s bad times, but there’s always fun times when Zander is around.”

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Zander Sechrist waves to Tennessee fans as he leaves the mound during the seventh inning. (Saul Young / Knoxville News Sentinel / USA Today)

That was the moment that said the most about this team, this No. 1 overall seed, which flopped with the same number by its name two years ago but handled the pressure this time and continued adding to these Vitello-authored glory days of Tennessee baseball. It said the most because this team does seem to have a special chemistry about it, but also because Sunday was a parade of goodbyes to the home fans. Win or lose, that was assured.

Say goodbye to Sechrist and Kirby Connell, lefties who have done a lot of relieving on the mound and delivered a lot of comic relief after games — Sechrist once told me the mulleted, mustachioed Connell “looks like a guy who would be taking a nap in the bullpen, get called into the eighth inning after having like six beers, get hot on the mound, do his job, then go right back to his nap.”

(Connell got his proper farewell, too, by the way, getting the call from Vitello to get the first out of the ninth against a Wes Carroll-coached Evansville team that pulled a 10-8 comeback stunner Saturday and was threatening to be among the biggest surprises to reach Omaha.)

Say goodbye to catcher Cal Stark, he of the fiery demeanor behind the plate and the three-run homer Sunday night that gave the Vols seven in the game — a program postseason record. Say goodbye to pitcher Chris Stamos, the late addition and Cal transfer who has been a revelation and is likely to start the first game in Omaha against Florida State.

Say goodbye, in all likelihood, to the top five hitters in a lineup that has cranked out 173 home runs this season — second-most in the history of the sport to LSU’s 188 in 1997. Christian Moore, Blake Burke, Billy Amick, Dylan Dreiling and Kavares Tears all look like prominent draftees. That’s a possibility for pitchers Aaron Combs and AJ Causey, too.

A whole bunch of the guys who finally got a chance to enjoy another celebratory dogpile at 10:14 p.m. local time made that their last official act on Lindsey Nelson turf and will be done with college ball whenever the Vols are done playing baseball in Omaha. So this seems like a good time to win the whole darn thing, even though rising young players and the transfer portal and the No. 1 recruiting class in America should prevent a 2025 plunge from relevance.

But Vitello’s staff probably isn’t going to stay the same forever, either. Associate head coach and recruiting coordinator Josh Elander is prime to be plucked away, maybe this year, certainly not long from now, and by a prominent program. That can be a big deal. Just ask Arkansas, which seems to still be missing Vitello, where he recruited and coached hitting at a high level before coming to Knoxville and turning Tennessee baseball into something it had never been before.

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Tennessee hadn’t been to an NCAA Tournament since 2005 when he was hired in 2017, and this is the Vols’ fifth straight. He has three of the Vols’ seven all-time College World Series appearances now — three in four years, following up four in 71 — and in those four years this is the winningest program in the nation by far and the only one with three 50-win seasons.

“Tony sets the tone for everything,” pitching coach Frank Anderson told The Athletic and one of the biggest examples of that was when Vitello talked Anderson — Oklahoma State’s former head coach and one of the most respected developers of pitchers in the game — into joining him in Knoxville.

Anderson is the graybeard — “100 years old,” he jokes — amid young guys, but he mixes it up as well as anyone. He said he loves “to give Tony a bad time,” and said Vitello called him “crazy ass Frank” in an interview this season. A loose staff can foster a loose team.

The players made sure to drag Anderson into the middle of the ring amid the revelry Sunday night, imploring him to jump up and down as they chanted: “Frank! Frank! Frank! Frank!”

Anderson said he, Vitello and Elander have all had opportunities to leave for other jobs during their time in Knoxville. Vitello and Anderson are locked in. Elander’s departure at some point is the inevitable and natural thing, and Vitello will have to keep identifying young coaching talent as any winning head coach must do to sustain success.

But as another College World Series cranks up and we wait to see if Vitello can build on last season’s first win in Omaha and make a run at a title, it’s worth a pause to appreciate and ponder what he’s done. He’s a unique personality, to grossly understate things. If you want a glimpse, go back and watch the video of his opening statement Sunday night.

He was furious, clearly, that Burke was asked Saturday about a potential Sunday loss ruining the season, and he was probably mad at some of the reaction to his insistence at that moment that “there’s no way it’s not a successful season,” win or lose.

So he gave us the Webster’s dictionary definition of success, talked about how Noah Webster was a patriot, which is “kind of a lost art around here,” said something about players with their hands out asking for money and … look, we have neither the time nor the expertise to unpack this presser.

Just know there will be more of them, after more big wins, usually with lighter topics such as the time he got sick after eating too many Life Savers gummies. And know that, no matter how he’s perceived outside his program, what he’s doing inside it is extraordinary. Talent and resources can’t explain all of this.

“He’s pretty unbelievable,” said Stamos, whose lone season with UT included an evening with Vitello at a bingo hall. “It’s like, he wants to win, but what he really wants is for us to have that thing where we’re trying to do it for each other. The ultimate of ultimate things for him is being a teammate. It’s just such a selfless and unique program.”

(Top photo: Bryan Lynn / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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