Vols are champs, rock stars and reminders that these are Tennessee's glory days (2024)

OMAHA, Neb. — Zander Sechrist nibbled and located, curveballing and frustrating the Texas A&M Aggies, the joker-turned-ace finishing his Tennessee Volunteers career with a staggering flourish.

Christian Moore lined a home run to left to open the scoring. Dylan Dreiling launched one high and just out to right to finish the Aggies, or so it seemed. Hunter Ensley turned ballet-dancing running back for a split second to avoid a tag and score what turned out to be a necessary and winning run. The best lineup in college baseball finally proved too much in Monday’s winner-take-all game for the national championship at Charles Schwab Field, and veteran relievers Nate Snead and Kirby Connell and Aaron Combs made Sechrist’s work stand in the face of Texas A&M’s valiant late run.

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When Combs struck out Ted Burton swinging on a darting slider at 9:32 p.m. Monday after the final 3 hours and 22 minutes of college baseball in 2024, the first SEC team to win 60 games in a season fell all over itself —as emphatically as it had picked itself up to meet pressure and make history on the final two days of its season. A 9-5 loss to the Aggies in the first game of the Men’s College World Series finals made way for a 4-1 comeback Sunday and ultimately tense 6-5 title clincher Monday, the biggest game and win in program history.

In that moment of joy, a person who has stuck it out with this program as faithfully as anyone on the planet — play-by-play announcer John Wilkerson, wrapping his 36th season — summed it up as such on the Vol Radio Network: “The climb is complete! They have reached the summit! The Volunteers are the very best in college baseball, and the championship flag has been planted in Rocky Top!”

History.

A call befitting the national champs 🔊 pic.twitter.com/p8O4EX4TaZ

— Tennessee Baseball (@Vol_Baseball) June 25, 2024

Moments after that, college coach championship celebrations were redefined in Omaha. The toast of Rocky Top, Tennessee baseball coach Tony Vitello, took the usual sports drink soaking (Sechrist got him good), and was all over the field hugging and yelling, yelling and hugging. But then he went full sprint from the infield, into left field, vaulted off the tarp and went crowd surfing like a rock star.

Which rock star?

“I think Stone Temple Pilots,” he said. “And I promise I don’t do drugs, but that was my first rock concert right there.”

TONY VITELLO JOINS THE FANS‼️@Vol_Baseball | #MCWS pic.twitter.com/nKQin2RT7u

— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 25, 2024

Tony ate the victory shower. Literally. pic.twitter.com/0vNek6Ql9P

— Tennessee Baseball (@Vol_Baseball) June 25, 2024

Vitello was still performing encores nearly an hour after the final pitch, taking every picture, signing every autograph, slapping every hand he could find from orange-draped remainders of a crowd of 24,685. The postgame spoke sufficiently to the meaning of the game.

“There was a lot of hunger and a lot of determination to get this done,” Moore said after his last game as a Vol, featuring that 34th home run to add to his program record. “And we did it, you know? It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a beautiful thing and I just want to enjoy it. I’m not gonna stop thinking about it. … I’ve cried maybe six times. Man, we’ve worked so hard for this moment.”

Vols are champs, rock stars and reminders that these are Tennessee's glory days (2)

Tennessee’s Blake Burke (left) and Christian Moore hold the College World Series championship trophy. (Brianna Paciorka / Knoxville News Sentinel / USA Today)

This was more than Tennessee’s first baseball national championship. This was more than the school’s first natty since the 2009 women’s indoor track and field team and the first among revenue-producing sports since Pat Summitt and Candace Parker won it all in 2008. This was more than the state of Tennessee’s first major championship in five years — rival Vanderbilt getting it done on the same field.

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And it was more than the last box checked for Vitello in a program turnaround so dramatic, he should soon be paid as much as anyone who coaches this game at the college level (that was already close to assured, but Texas firing its coach and starting a search Monday should at least mean another car or country club membership for him).

This was legend status certification of a special group of players. This was long-delayed gratification for the masses of humanity who make up Tennessee fandom.

This team is loaded with talent, especially at the plate, finishing with the second-most home runs in college baseball history (184). A bunch of these guys will soon be drafted and some are destined to make an impact in the majors. Vitello’s program takes advantage of UT resources and the portal to field powerhouse teams, and it will continue to do so.

But it’s easy to see there’s more than that to this group. Collections of talent can win a lot of games, but it takes more than that to win championships.

“No better team to win for the University of Tennessee than a bunch of guys who were truly the definition of a team, and no better play for our program than (getting) the winning run on that slide, from a guy that’s just built with a ton of grit,” Vitello said of Ensley, who shares that description with Drew Beam, Blake Burke, Kavares Tears, Cal Stark and many others. “It’s a great example of how this group got things done.”

SAFE!!

111 mph off the bat from KT and an incredible slide at home by Hunter to avoid the tag!!!

📺 https://t.co/57mSIippEi (ESPN) #GBO // #OTH // #MCWS // #BeatTAMU pic.twitter.com/7pj5Whlv07

— Tennessee Baseball (@Vol_Baseball) June 25, 2024

Sechrist and Connell are the heart of this fun-loving bunch, just as Drew Gilbert and Jordan Beck set the tone for the viciously competitive, uber-talented 2022 team that embraced villain status in the sport. That No. 1 overall seed’s shocking failure to reach Omaha, cheered loudly around the sport, ended up a prologue to this No. 1 overall seed becoming the first since Miami in 1999 to win it all.

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Sechrist and Connell, hilarious dudes who pitched a little bit then, just played enormous roles in a run to a championship. Sechrist got the win Monday to cap an astounding run to finish his career — five earned runs allowed in 34 2/3 innings in his last six starts, all UT wins, including the Knoxville Super Regional clincher and an Omaha decision over Florida State.

“He does everything for this program, man,” Moore said of Sechrist. “He’s such a great guy and I love to see him in that moment, doing what he does best. He’s so funky, and I don’t know what it is but it works.”

Sechrist and Connell may be hilarious — Sechrist saw Tennessee AD Danny White in the back of the postgame news conference and urged him to give Vitello a “lifetime contract” — but they got serious amid the revelry on the field when asked about each other.

Said Sechrist: “I don’t know that I can really put that, or put (Connell), into words right now.”

Said Connell: “A lot of people didn’t believe in Zander. But this team did the whole way.”

You have officially entered, the Zander Zone.

📺 https://t.co/57mSIippEi (ESPN) #GBO // #OTH // #MCWS // #BeatTAMU pic.twitter.com/fyjnTjrLg5

— Tennessee Baseball (@Vol_Baseball) June 25, 2024

Vitello had a poignant moment, too, with his father, Greg Vitello, who coached him growing up in St. Louis and said Monday was “like I died and went to heaven.”

“Like you walked out of the cornfield,” he said, “and there it is.”

What it’s all about. pic.twitter.com/PLIs1mxVNH

— Tennessee Baseball (@Vol_Baseball) June 25, 2024

That’s a reference to the 1989 Kevin Costner movie on baseball and fathers and sons, “Field of Dreams,” and Greg Vitello followed it up with a few minutes of chatting about his son with reporters. Then he looked to his right, saw a familiar face and said: “I think I’m gonna go say hi to Peyton.”

That’s Peyton Manning, the most famous of Vols, who took in the game with Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel, Tennessee men’s basketball coach Rick Barnes and country music star Morgan Wallen. Which brings us to Tennessee fans.

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They clearly don’t have a Manning curse to worry about anymore, and now they don’t have to long for one of their teams with the potential for greatness to fulfill it. Heupel and Barnes have had teams like that in recent years that came up short, and they both have teams good enough for national aspirations in the months ahead.

Peyton Manning on Tony Vitello. pic.twitter.com/VxICgkk3G9

— Joe Rexrode (@joerexrode) June 25, 2024

Now that Tennessee fans have a champion, maybe it will be easier to appreciate what it means to knock on the door consistently, and how much more common that is at UT now than it was just a few years ago. That’s what Manning was talking about as he thought back to the heartbreak of the 2022 baseball team.

“I’d rather have my heart ripped out because it means you’re close,” Manning said. “And we’ve had our hearts ripped out.”

Now they’re living in the good old days, a championship flag planted and a parade to come on Rocky Top.

Vols are champs, rock stars and reminders that these are Tennessee's glory days (3)

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(Top photo of Tennessee pitcher Aaron Combs celebrating with catcher Cal Stark: Peter Aiken / Getty Images)

Vols are champs, rock stars and reminders that these are Tennessee's glory days (5)Vols are champs, rock stars and reminders that these are Tennessee's glory days (6)

Joe Rexrode is a senior staff writer for The Athletic covering all things Nashville and some things outside Nashville. He previously worked at The Tennessean, the Detroit Free Press and the Lansing State Journal, spending the past three years as sports columnist at The Tennessean. Follow Joe on Twitter @joerexrode

Vols are champs, rock stars and reminders that these are Tennessee's glory days (2024)

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