Photo By Ian Cox/Tennessee Athletics
Tennessee coach Tony Vitello met with the media in Omaha Thursday night before the Vols open up play at the College World Series Saturday night.
Vitello discussed his pitching plan, the journey of this Tennessee team, LSU ace Paul Skenes and more. Here’s everything Vitello said.
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On who Tennessee is going to start against LSU
“(Laughing) well, Frank is not sitting here. You know, we’ve just kind of gone with our routine. I think one time everyone went crazy because I got asked in our local media setup similar to this, and I said, well, we’re about to practice, and then we’ll finalize it. Anytime we’ve done that, I don’t like saying something and then — there’s no tomfoolery or anything like that, but we’ve rolled with what really has got us to this point with Andrew Lindsey first and Dollander second and Beam third. Burnsy has been incredible out of the bullpen with his stuff and ability to get outs, but he has kind of changed our team’s mentality a little bit too with the emotion he pitches with and having fun out there again as an athlete, but also he gives our guys confidence that the back end of the game is one that we feel like we can win each time we go out.”
On which team from 2021-23 has taught him the most
“Oh, taught the most. This one, hands-down. It’s been interesting. It didn’t quite work out this way because the 2020 year was so crazy. I’m not saying it — because it’s easy to say you were good in 2020 because it never — we didn’t play any SEC games, but there’s a lot of people within the program that think that was the most talented group. You would have liked to keep climbing, keep climbing. Eventually you get to a point where you can’t say we’re better this year than we were last year. It’s kind of trying to create a standard and uphold it.
This year to follow last year’s act and all the stuff that came with it and just a lot of other mini-stories along the way, it’s been a ton. I have repeatedly said it to where anyone listening probably thinks we’re whining. We got an unbelievable coaching staff that has stuck together and been loyal. We’re blessed with talent. There’s multiple guys that throw 100. It’s not like we don’t have the ability to get to a place like this, but the journey we took was about as zigzaggy or curvy or windy as it can get. Maybe it’s helped us in the long run because I don’t feel like we’ve reached our full potential. Now, if that’s the case, you better find in a hurry because there’s only so many days left, even for the national champion.
Just for our program’s sake, our fans’ sake, the construction with the stadium, how many kind of different little adversity stories I could tell you about this year, there’s been a lot wrapped into one. It’s a big old Chipotle burrito of stuff that’s gone on this year. Been beneficial, though, in the long run.”
On how important consistency is for this team to reach its ceiling
“Sure. I think a little bit of that is that’s a microcosm of the league. There’s a lot of teams that could tell that story of one weekend it was great, they were exhilarating, and the next weekend it felt like your season is coming to an end. Mississippi probably would have described that a couple of different times last year. So our league is like that, and then our team has been like that this year. And I think what I want to answer your question with, whether it’s directly to your — specific to your question, I should say, or not, is just there was so much tinkering going on. Maybe that’s my fault. Maybe it’s the players’ fault. But guys in the cage adjusting swings, new lineup every day, where does this guy go in the bullpen, what are we going to do with Camden? Andrew Lindsey is supposed to be our closer; well, we don’t have any save opportunities.
There was just all this tinkering, and I think eventually we decided to go with a few different things that were going to be our specific approach day in and day out, whether it be the lineup or the defense we wanted to roll with. Eventually it settled in. These kids are young. They want to come to the park and know what’s expected of them. It takes two to tango. Part of it was our fault; part of it was theirs. The whole first half of the season had a lot of juggling and trying to figure thing out. There’s been a lot more consistency from the coaches and the players together. We’ve kind of come together and done it as a group.”
On what they can take from facing Paul Skenes earlier this season
“Yeah, he was more than solid. The one thing when you face a guy like Grice at Clemson, I’m glad our hitters had a better mentality than I did in the dugout because there were moments of doubt. You have to just keep playing, and I’ve been fortunate enough to coach some pitchers, and some of them have also been pitchers we’ve faced where you can see the other dugout kind of deflate.
The series was not our best effort, but the kids did keep kind of pushing forward in that series, and it was early, but it was one of the first signs of, okay, we got a little bit of the fight that we want in our program. We finished that weekend off very well on Sunday, but if you date back to Friday or Game 1 of that deal, Skenes was better than us. And I think there’s probably some info in there that we can pull out, and the guys can take some confidence in maybe we’ve seen him once before. He is probably a different pitcher now than he was then. It’s probably a different LSU team in some areas. I mean, they still have Mr. Crews and all that. We’re a different team too.
You want to have some preparation going into the deal and see what will be similar from that weekend and maybe try and get a head start on what could be different, but I also feel like this is a place where you don’t know what’s going to happen. Just like our last weekend, lightning, pitching changes, expect chaos and embrace it during the postseason. This group has done that very, very well. Maybe it’s those struggles that we had early on that built us for that.”
On what his dad has meant to him, his guidance this season
“Yeah, you know, I think for me the players get out there. When you talk about being in Omaha, all of a sudden you can look up and be like, holy cow, there’s big crowds in the SEC, but this is a big crowd. Then this is also the park you’re dreaming of playing in. Well, if you have a good foundation of work ethic and things you’ve done in the weight room and preparation and all that, it should be easy to take a deep breath and say just go do it.
For me I’m young and I have to lean on Coach Anderson a lot and still kind of trying to find my way. But when there are moments of difficulty or we need to try something new, I think the foundation I got just from being around him every day is the most beneficial. That doesn’t mean in a season like this his encouragement or maybe his words to the guys or cracking a joke at maybe a valuable time doesn’t carry some weight, but I really just feel like the foundation in general is one that is strong.
I’m not saying it about myself, but it’s kind of the old house thing. Like, you want to have a house that’s got a good foundation, and the rest is kind of icing on the cake. So for me, again, being around him all those years, he can say stuff to me now, and sometimes it’s needed. Sometimes it’s not because maybe it’s after a loss where you don’t want to talk or something like that, but I can hear that voice right now. Anything he is going to say, I’ve heard about every version of it in different varying tones, and all beneficial.”
On who has stepped up as a leader this season
“Zane Denton just with him coming out of his shell. It’s been awesome. When you come to the park, some of it’s a little too choreographed at times, but you want some personality. You can stick some gum on a guy’s hat or just shenanigans, whatever you want to call it. I think him getting new to our program and then some of the adversity he faced in his first year with us kind of had him bottled up a little bit.
Now just him being himself shows the other guys, well, that’s kind of what we need to be to be the best team, is just everybody kind of be who they are and kind of let your light shine, to use that cliche. So he has taken on a bigger leadership role than I thought he would. Griffin Merritt and Jared Dickey have been great because they’re older. They’re guys in the middle of the order that are looked to. So those are two guys that stand out to me, but you could kind of go up and down the lineup. It’s a young group, as you mentioned, so everybody kind of had to contribute a little bit.
Then on the pitching side of things, again, Lindsey and Burns kind of taking on different roles. They showed our guys how to start a series with competitiveness and how to end a game or end a series with competitiveness.”
On dealing with everything else that comes with Omaha
“Yeah, Camden, he said it up here. I’m glad he did. He has become a mentor. And I’m close with the kid, so no offense, but I never thought he would be a mentor (laughing). I thought he would be a really good pitcher for us right out of the gate, and he has put together one of the best careers, as John mentioned. It could be pretty interesting if he makes an appearance here or a landmark appearance, and he has helped.
To be honest with you, last time the way we advanced here and the downtime we had between — you could even throw out there was no opening ceremony like we’ll have tonight. There was no celebration because it was so close to 2020. I don’t even want to say the word. There was too much downtime, and there was too much media and hype, the Daddy hat stuff. I think it became a distraction. It kind of took most of the attention of our guys instead of just focusing on the game.
This time around I think the guys are just trying to get some rest. We got done in Hattiesburg at midnight. They probably went to bed at 3:00, 4:00 in the morning just by nature of adrenaline. We fly out the next morning, and then we fly here about 18, 20 hours later. They’re probably just trying to get back to neutral and enjoy this thing. It’s probably moving a lot faster. I think the nature of the schedule could benefit us this go-around.”
On the moment being too big for Tennessee in 2021
“I don’t. I think, like anything, I kept mentioning Game 3 against Southern Miss, they were too hyped up. It was good that they were hyped up, as you should be in that situation, but they kind of needed to relax a little bit. I don’t have the magic thermometer to tell exactly what’s going on with the team, but if we see stuff, we’ll point it out.
Otherwise, again, the schedule throughout the whole season of 56 games and the SEC tournament, that did our job for us. That’s, again — there’s great conferences out there, you know, but the SEC kind of beats it into you, out of you, however you want to phrase it, that you go through that stuff and it prepares you. But I think that 2021 group will tell you, Liam Spence and Fergie and Russell aren’t scared of anything, but I think they kind of locked up. Instead of staying true to themselves, they were not, and it hurt us a little bit in that particular case. Different team, different time, different schedule.”
On how team chemistry has developed over the course of the season
“Yeah, it’s gone from — I don’t know what’s a faraway place — Bali all the way to the United States of America. It’s as long of a trip as you can imagine. In August it was weird. Even though we lost in the supers, we did play late into the summer or at least halfway through the summer. Some of those guys stuck around the facility and prepared for pro ball because the draft is later.
So all of a sudden it went from Camden Sewells and Drew Gilberts and Evan Russells, guys that were like extra coaches, they were staples of the program, to all these new guys. It got real weird real fast. I think the coaches were far apart from the players. The players were far apart from one another. There was just a lot of sorting out that needed to be done. By the end of the fall we played Memphis in front of a massive crowd down in the west side of the state that was great for our program, but it was great for the coaches because it was the first day we were, like, these guys have come a long way in the first semester.
But then you have to start back over in January and the standards and expectations are higher. So we started where we ended off in the fall, but it needed to go further. Again, I would like to say that to me we’re still working on what is the best version of ourselves, but we’re much further along than we had been at any point in the season.”