July 13, 2024

Tennessee earns first national title in baseball with 6-5 win over Texas A&M

By ERIC OLSON AP Sports Writer

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Tony Vitello jumped into the stands to share a group hug with the legion of Tennessee fans who invaded Omaha. His players ran a lap around the warning track high-fiving them. Kavares Tears squatted in right field taking in the moment with a towel over his eyes.

Tennessee at long last won its first national championship in baseball.

Christian Moore hit a leadoff homer, Dylan Dreiling went deep for the third time in three games and Tennessee survived anxious moments late to take the title with a 6-5 victory over Texas A&M on Monday night in Game 3 of the College World Series finals.

The Volunteers bounced back from a Game 1 loss to win two straight and become the first No. 1 national seed in the NCAA Tournament to win the title since Miami in 1999.

“Kids are tough these days. They will do what you ask them to do,” said Vitello, the Vols’ seventh-year coach. “I know our fans got us through that tough inning. That was a group effort on the mound. If you’re in the SEC, you’re going to be a superstar player, but you need to be a good teammate, and that’s what these guys were.”

Tennessee (60-13) held an Aggies team averaging 8.5 runs per game for the season to six runs over the last 20 innings of the finals, with Zander Sechrist and Nate Snead doing the heavy lifting on Monday before Texas A&M came back to score four runs and get the tying run at the plate in the ninth.

Aaron Combs struck out Hayden Schott and Ted Burton to end the game and set off a Tennessee celebration behind the pitcher’s mound.

Tennessee had made runs at the title before. The Vols reached the CWS in 2021 and went 0-2. The next year they were the No. 1 national seed and lost at home in a three-game super regional. They were back in Omaha last year and won a game. And they slugged their way back again this year, making it to the finals for the first time since the 1951 team lost to Oklahoma in the championship game.

Minutes after the final pitch, the 45-year-old Vitello shared an embrace with his father, Greg, a longtime state champion high school baseball and soccer coach in St. Louis.

“I felt like I was the dad and he was the kid because he wouldn’t stop crying,” Vitello said. “I had to rub some dirt on him.”

The Vols are the eighth Southeastern Conference school to win a national title in baseball. Those eight have combined for 16 titles. The SEC has won five in a row, all by different schools, and 10 of the last 15.

Texas A&M threatened to cut into a 3-1 deficit in the sixth and seventh innings, but Snead got the Vols out of trouble both times.

Dreiling, the CWS Most Outstanding Player, connected for his 23rd homer of the season and Hunter Ensley evaded Jackson Appel’s tag at the plate as he scored on Tears’ double to make it 6-1 going to the eighth. Since the CWS best-of-three finals began in 2003, Dreiling is the only player to homer in three games.

“I kind of blacked out again in the moment,” Dreiling said. “I know first pitch I overswung on a heater way up. I told myself just see the ball deep and put a good swing on something. He gave me a changeup over the middle. I tried to stay back and put a good swing on it.”

The Vols’ two homers Monday moved them into a tie with the 1998 LSU team for most in an NCAA Tournament (37) and gave them 184 for the season, four behind the 1997 LSU team’s NCAA record of 188.

Texas A&M created some anxiety for the Vols in the eighth, scoring twice and threatening to get more with two runners on base with one out. Kirby Connell got two strikes, pumped his left fist twice coming off the mound, gave a primal scream and skipped over the third-base line on his way back to the dugout.

The Aggies scored twice in the ninth, the second run coming home on a wild pitch, to make it a one-run game before Combs finished it off.

“Tough one to swallow,” Aggies coach Jim Schlossnagle said. “You make it this far, you want to win your last game.”

Among the fans on hand in Tennessee orange were football great Peyton Manning, football coach Josh Heupel, men’s basketball coach Rick Barnes and country music artist Morgan Wallen. Temperature at first pitch was a humid 98 degrees.

Moore took Tennessee fans’ minds off the heat, at least for a moment, when he drove Justin Lamkin’s fourth pitch, an elevated fastball, off the back wall of the left-field bullpen for his team-leading 34th homer of the season.

The Aggies overcame late-season injuries, including one to star outfielder Braden Montgomery, to reach their first CWS finals. Their 53 wins were their most since 1993.

“I think Texas A&M is a place that should be competing in the SEC. Should be competing to host regionals. And everybody thinks that Omaha is a right. It’s not,” Schlossnagle said. “You have to earn your way there and have you to play well in the NCAA Tournament.”