May 23—Tennessee completed its most successful Southeastern Conference baseball season in a quarter century Saturday afternoon, holding off South Carolina 5-4 in Columbia.
The news got even better for Tony Vitello’s Volunteers early Saturday evening.
They finished the regular season with a 42-14 overall record and a 20-10 mark in SEC games, the most league victories since Rod Delmonico’s 1995 Vols won the conference by going 22-8. That Tennessee team also won the SEC tournament, a feat these Vols will try to accomplish next week in Hoover, Alabama.
The Vols will head to the Birmingham suburb as the 12-team extravaganza’s second seed, which was clinched along with a rare SEC East title when Kentucky rallied for five ninth-inning runs to stun Vanderbilt 7-5 in Nashville. Arkansas (22-8 in SEC play), Tennessee, Mississippi State (20-10) and Vandy (19-10) earned the four coveted first-round byes for the conference tournament, which begins Tuesday morning.
“We’ll get to that,” Vitello said Saturday afternoon on a Zoom call when asked about the top-four seed. “We’ll get sorted for what’s to come, but we’re just kind of reflecting on a fun 56 games. All that will be good.
“This game is going to help us. That’s why you see SEC teams make runs like they do in the postseason. This was exactly what a super regional looks like.”
Tennessee’s division championship is its first since 1997 — or several months before Peyton Manning took the field for his senior football season that resulted in a division and overall league crown.
Connor Pavolony’s three-run home run to center field in the fourth inning put fourth-ranked Tennessee up 5-1, but the No. 21 Gamecocks (33-20, 16-14), whose storied history includes consecutive national championships in 2010-11, applied some pressure with a three-run eighth.
Vols reliever Sean Hunley allowed a leadoff double in the ninth before collecting three straight strikeouts. When asked to describe Hunley’s performance, Vitello answered, “I can’t say it — big stones.”
Tennessee wound up winning eight of 10 SEC series this spring, losing only to Arkansas and Vanderbilt, the top two teams nationally in the latest Baseball America poll. The Vols will open tournament play Wednesday afternoon against the winner of Tuesday afternoon’s game between seventh-seeded South Carolina and 10th-seeded Alabama.
Lady Vols eliminated
Ninth-seeded Tennessee’s stay in the NCAA softball tournament wound up being a short one, with the Lady Vols falling 3-1 to James Madison on Saturday afternoon and then succumbing to Liberty 6-4 Saturday night. Former Meigs County standout Ashley Rogers took the loss in both contests, essentially on two pitches.
Kate Gordon’s three-run homer to left-center field in the second inning gave James Madison all the scoring it would need. Gordon’s blast came after runners had reached on a fielding error and being hit by a pitch.
The Lady Vols took a 2-0 lead against Liberty, but Savannah Channell wound up changing that in the fourth inning with a grand slam to left. Rogers wound up pitching 10 innings in the two games, allowing eight runs and eight hits.
Liberty (44-14) and James Madison (36-1) will continue in the Knoxville Regional on Sunday.
Tennessee ends its season 42-15.
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.