Improving Vols enter SEC tournament as formidable reigning champs

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee’s Christian Scott watches the flight of his three-run home run during Saturday’s 12-1 dismantling of South Carolina in Columbia. The Volunteers resume play Tuesday afternoon against Texas A&M at the Southeastern Conference tournament in Hoover, Alabama.

The Tennessee Volunteers enter this week’s Southeastern Conference baseball tournament looking to enhance their NCAA tournament status.

They’ve got plenty of company.

Nine of the 12 teams at the six-day extravaganza in Hoover, Alabama, reside among the top 16 in the RPI rankings, with Tony Vitello’s Vols at No. 16. In the NCAA tournament’s 64-team field, the top 16 seeds host regionals, with the top eight seeds guaranteed to host super regionals provided they win their regionals.

Tennessee was the definition of an NCAA tourney bubble team following its 5-10 start to conference play, but the Vols went 11-4 during the back half of their league schedule to earn the seventh seed at Hoover Met. Their No. 13 ranking in Monday’s D1 Baseball poll is slightly more favorable than their RPI, with it placing fifth among SEC teams behind No. 2 Florida, No. 4 Arkansas, No. 5 LSU and No. 8 Vanderbilt, and ahead of No. 19 Auburn, No. 24 Alabama and No. 25 Kentucky.

“What we have here with this group is a bunch of lessons learned, a lot of momentum and maybe kind of coming together in the locker room in different ways,” Vitello said Saturday evening after a 12-1 win at South Carolina wrapped up a 38-18 regular season that includes the 16-14 conference mark. “The question you’ve got to have over your head is, ‘Have we played our best ball yet?’

“I don’t think that answer is necessarily, ‘Yes,’ but the momentum forward is key.”

Tennessee is the defending champion of this event, having shredded Vanderbilt, LSU, Kentucky and Florida by a combined 35-10 last May to earn the NCAA tournament’s top overall seed.

The SEC tournament opens Tuesday morning with sixth-seeded South Carolina (38-17, 16-13) taking on 11th-seeded Georgia (29-26, 11-19) at 10:30 Eastern, with that matchup followed by the Vols facing 10th-seeded Texas A&M (32-23, 14-16). Those winners along with the winners of eighth-seeded Kentucky (36-17, 16-14) versus ninth-seeded Alabama (38-17, 16-14) and fifth-seeded Auburn (33-19-1) against 12th-seeded Missouri (30-23, 10-20) will advance to Wednesday’s eight-team, double-elimination format that runs through Sunday.

Tennessee opened the SEC portion of its season by getting swept at Missouri before bouncing back to sweep Texas A&M inside Lindsey Nelson Stadium.

The Vols were 12-3 in league games at home, posting sweeps of Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, and they doubled their road win total within the SEC this past weekend by taking two of three at South Carolina. Andrew Lindsey, Chase Dollander and Drew Beam combined to work nearly 20 innings for the Vols against the Gamecocks, racking up 22 strikeouts with a sizzling 1.37 earned run average.

“Nothing really matters except for Tuesday’s game,” Vitello said. “This tournament requires you to use a multitude of pitchers. The way this season has gone, we really haven’t gotten anybody past 100 pitches.

“It’s a good group, and I think they’re ready to go.”

Lindsey, who actually reached 103 pitches in working into the ninth inning during Friday’s 5-0 blanking of the Gamecocks, was named Monday as the SEC pitcher of the week.

Lady Vols set

The NCAA softball tournament’s super regional, best-of-three showdown between No. 4 Tennessee and No. 13 Texas at Sherri Parker Lee Stadium will begin Friday afternoon at 4 on ESPN2.

Saturday’s game will start at 3, though the broadcast information has not been released, while the time for Sunday’s if-necessary contest has yet to be determined.

Contact David Paschall at [email protected].