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‘T’ For Texas A&M, ‘T’ For Tennessee: A College World Series Preview

 Leif Skodnick - World Baseball Network  |    Jun 21st, 2024 5:08pm EDT

Head coach Jim Schlossnagle of the Texas A&M Aggies and head coach Tony Vitello of the Tennessee Volunteers shake hands after their game at Lindsey Nelson Stadium on March 24, 2023 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Tennessee won that game 7-4, but Vitello says they won’t take much from that game into the College World Series final, which begins Saturday. (Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

OMAHA, Neb. – For one team in the College World Series final, it’s been 73 years since the program last played for a National Championship in Omaha.

When Tennessee played Oklahoma for the 1951 NCAA Championship, the event was in its second year at Omaha Municipal Stadium. Harry Truman was the President of the United States, and Willie Mays was 36 games and three home runs into his Hall of Fame career.

And for the other, the College World Series final is uncharted territory.

It’s the first time Texas A&M has reached the best-of-three series and had the opportunity to play for college baseball’s ultimate prize. Should A&M win, it’d be the first National Championship for the Aggies in a men’s team sport since 1939, when the football team went 11-0, beating Tulane in the Sugar Bowl and earning the title by consensus.

Tennessee was here last year, losing to eventual champion and Southeastern Conference rival Louisiana State in the opener and beating Stanford before being eliminated by LSU in their third game in Omaha. Tony Vitello’s Volunteers have been nothing short of spectacular in 2024, reeling off an 18-game winning streak during the regular season, finishing atop the SEC standings, and then taking the SEC Tournament with a 4-3 win over LSU on May 26 on their way to the top seed in the NCAA Tournament.

If the Vols are anything, they’re loose. They have fun.

“I think team chemistry is something, outside of just natural abilities, I think that plays a huge role in how a team plays on the field,” said redshirt sophomore outfielder Kavares Tears on Friday. “And I think the closer we got throughout the fall and throughout the season, I think it made it a lot easier for the freshman to kind of make their adjustment a little quicker and get a feel for what goes on and how we approach every day at the field.”

The Volunteers played the Aggies just once this season, a 7-4 Tennessee win in the SEC tournament at the Hoover Met in Hoover, Ala. Asked what they learned about Texas A&M from that game, Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said, “…Unfortunately, not a whole lot because we’re, for whatever reason, able to edge them out on that particular day, but we don’t get any runs for that on the scoreboard [in the College World Series final].”

But the potential to produce a lot of runs is there. The Vols have five players with 20 or more homers in the lineup, led by outfielder Christian Moore, who’s cleared the fence 33 times this season. Billy Amick, who starred at Clemson before transferring to Tennessee, has hit 23 this season, while Blake Burke, Dylan Dreiling, and Kavares Tears each have 20.

Having faced his own lineup in the fall, senior Kirby Connell, the beloved pitcher with the effusive personality and Civil War general facial hair, knows how intimidating the Vols lineup and depth can be.

“It was definitely hard” to pitch against his teammates, Connell said. “You’ve got a lot of guys, 1 through 9, and you’ve got all the guys that helped them get to where they’re at right now. …You can’t throw them anything because you know they can leave the yard whenever they want.”

How will Jim Schlossnagle’s Aggies try to contain that lineup? It’ll start with lefthander Ryan Prager, who’ll take the mound in game one Saturday night. And then?

“I don’t have an idea who will pitch the other games,” Schlossnagle said.

His club is “banged up,” according to outfielder Hayden Schott, who transferred from Columbia University in New York for his final season of eligibility. He’s been reported to be playing through a torn meniscus, catcher Jackson Appel has some nagging issues but can play, and outfielder Jace Laviolette is nursing a hamstring injury.

How will they get through it?

“I’d just say perseverance. I think it’s also a testament to our guys that maybe haven’t played a lot throughout the season. It’s just that next-man-up mentality,” Schott said on Friday. “At this point of year, everyone’s pretty banged up. It’s just as a matter of much you want to leave on field. And there’s no one in our dugout that doesn’t want to leave everything on the field. That’s the beauty of it. It’s not just me, by any means.”

Schlossnagle, now in his third season in College Station, has been to Omaha before, taking his 2010 team at Texas Christian to Rosenblatt Stadium, where they were stopped by a UCLA team that featured future Cy Young Award winners Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole, and was one win away from the 2016 College World Series final with the Horned Frogs.

“Outfield defense is incredibly important in this ballpark. We’re banged up in the outfield,” Schlossnagle said. “I know Tennessee has played awesome defense. I think anybody who has made it to this point has done that.”

In the 2022 College World Series, Texas A&M lost their opener to Oklahoma before winning two elimination games. Two wins away from a trip to the College World Series final, the Aggies lost to Oklahoma.

With all other NCAA Championships concluded, the College World Series is the lone remaining college sports event for the 2023-24 school year.

On Saturday, the Volunteers and the Aggies will wake up to find out that the eyes of the college sports world are gazing solely upon them—two, maybe three more days in the sun.

“As I told them yesterday, this thing is all going to be over Tuesday morning,” Schlossnagle said. “Most teams don’t know when their season is going to end. We’re pretty sure when ours is going to end, one way or the other. That’s a gift. That’s a blessing we should be thankful for.”

NOTEBOOK: When Tennessee played in the 1951 College World Series, General Robert Neyland, the longtime football coach and namesake of the school’s football stadium, threw out the first pitch. Asked who they would choose to throw out a first pitch Saturday, Kavares Tears suggested former Tennessee player Chris Burke, while Kirby Connell suggested Todd Helton. Head Coach Tony Vitello initially replied with Burke’s name, but later said, “throwing out the first pitch, if you get one pick, it’s Pat Summitt.” Interestingly, Neyland spent a year at Texas A&M before receiving an appointment to the United States Military Academy. He coached football at Army from 1919-24 before being named an assistant coach at Tennessee. He had three separate tenures as head coach at Tennessee between 1925 and 1952, and also served as athletic director from 1036-40 and 1946-62.

Vitello said the finals’ schedule worked similarly to a week during the regular season. Instead of playing Tuesday and having two days of practice before a three-game series starting Friday, everything is just a day later. “You’re kind of in the rhythm there that you were all season long. …You have a practice yesterday that’s similar to what we would have done on a Wednesday. And we’ll have a practice today that would have been similar if we were on the road, which we are, to prepare for the weekend. Then you’ve got a weekend series, like I said, against an SEC opponent.” … Vitello said that he expects outfielder Hunter Ensley should be able to play in the three-game series, but will likely be a day-of-game decision. … Vitello worked as recruiting coordinator for Schlossnagle at TCU from 2011-13. The Aggies head coach said, “He did an awesome job for us at TCU. Most of the players on that ’14 — we went on a run ’14, ’15, ’16, ’17 coming to Omaha, a lot of the core players on that ’14 team was recruited by Tony.”

College World Series Final Schedule
All times Eastern Daylight Time.

Saturday, June 22
7:35 p.m. – Texas A&M vs. Tennessee – ESPN

Sunday, June 23
2 p.m. – Tennessee vs. Texas A&M – ABC

Monday, June 24
7 p.m. – Texas A&M vs. Tennessee (if necessary) – ESPN

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Leif Skodnick - World Baseball Network