Power to Spare

Photography by Bruce McCamish

The 2024 Vols have resilience, solid pitching, and sluggers enough to return to the College World Series.

In a Saturday game against Georgia on Easter weekend, before a record crowd of 5,677 at the expanded Lindsey Nelson Stadium, the Vols had a chance to show their grit and toughness.

They had lost 16-2 the evening before, as reliable sidewinder A.J. Causey gave up eight runs in 2 2/3 innings to the Bulldogs, the only team in the country with more taters than the Vols. “Sometimes you get slugged in the gut,” said coach Tony Vitello afterward. “When that happens, you got to keep on truckin’.”

On Saturday, reliable right-hander Drew Beam from Murfreesboro was similarly shelled for seven runs in 2 2/3 innings. Trailing 7-3, Kirby “Vollie Fingers” Connell came in with two out and ducks on the pond and got .339-hitting Bulldog Slate Alford to ground out. With his stylish handlebar mustache, Connell got his nickname from the 1970s Oakland A’s reliever Rollie Fingers. 

In the bottom half of the third, junior first baseman Blake Burke from Brentwood, California, hit a 411-foot rocket over the right field wall to tie UT’s record for career home runs with 40. “His swing’s been compared to a lot of people,” said Vitello. “He tied the record on the field, but it really happened in the batting cage. He’s really gifted but I think he’s a better worker than he is a player. There’s plenty of skill there for him to make it all the way to the big leagues but it’s been refined by a big-time work ethic and also a will to win that’s pretty special. I wish we could bottle it up. He’s got a little David Ortiz in him.” 

In the bottom of the fifth inning, down 8-4, Vitello pinch hit Dalton Bargo, a .350 hitter and versatile fielder from Omaha, Nebraska, for shortstop Ariel Antigua. Bargo led off with a nifty single to left. Second baseman Christian Moore hit an opposite field liner to the right corner for a double. Burke lined a single to right center to score Bargo. DH Robin Villeneuve, a junior from Quebec, was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Rightfielder Kavares Tears took an outside pitch for a base on balls to score Moore. Then leftfielder Dylan Dreiling put UT up 10-8 with a grand slam of 366 feet over the right field wall. “See ya,” said WUTK-FM writer Cade Brown. 

Dreiling is a sophomore from Hays, Kansas. “He’s got a lot more fire in him than people realize at times,” said Vitello. “But I think he does a good job of keeping that calm that you have to have when that crowd got pretty loud. I think it comes from being comfortable in his own skin. Coming here from Kansas, you got to realize you belong here. His work in the weight room has helped with that.”

After the Bulldogs tied it in the seventh inning, Tears led off with a single and Dreiling walked. Third baseman Dean Curley hit a hot double off the third baseman’s glove to score Tears. With the bases loaded, pinch hitter Reese Chapman got an RBI walk to make it 12-10. Then Bargo hit a grand slam to make it 16-10. 

Connell ended up throwing 94 pitches over five innings for the win. “I liked being able to throw all the pitches,” he said. “I didn’t have a change-up today, but maybe I turned some heads a little bit throwing longer than I usually do,” he said.

“It’s the approach they’ve had,” said Vitello. “I’m more proud of Kirby than anything for the ultimate sign of some grit out there. The game was chaotic. He came in and calmed it down. At the end he was out of gas, physically.”

“They’ve got a little bit of swagger to them,” noted WUTK’s Jace Brown. “This team is very strong—everybody’s talented. They all know what they can be. The team two years ago was full of guys that wanted to prove everybody wrong. This team wants to prove everybody right.”

Happy Fans Amid the Renovations

The Easter weekend had begun with a festival atmosphere on a sunny Friday evening. The youngest fan out of the 5,575 in attendance was two-and-a-half-month-old Blair Williams, in the arms of her mom, Heather Norris, alongside her aunt Caroline. “It’s never too early to get them started,” said Norris. 

Sterl the Pearl Henton worked his DJ controller on the first base side walkway, showering passers-by with relentless enthusiasm. “Here’s Bobby Scott,” he said to the smiling MVP of the 1971 Sugar Bowl and longtime backup to Archie Manning on the New Orleans Saints. “It’s all love in orange and white!” said Sterl. “Ain’t no top like Rocky Top, baby!”

Roxy Lyons Jr., director of the Emerald Youth Foundation baseball/softball ministry, stood with Holston Middle School seventh grader Charlie Stone, waiting for his moment to say “Play Ball” into the mic of Tennessee Fan Experience intern/MC Erin Green. “Don’t be nervous, baby,” said Sterl. “No mumbling,” added Lyons, with a grin.

Over the PA: “Hi. This is Head Baseball Coach Tony Vitello. Please be mindful of our ongoing renovations. Pardon our progress and our dust. Soon the nation’s No. 1 baseball venue will be right here on Rocky Top.” The improvements so far include a New Fan Zone on the third base line, with porches of tables in left field. In two years (and $100 million), capacity will be 7,600. That’s much less than many monster SEC ballparks, but Vitello and the designers are optimizing the Fenway-type intimacy that fans love.  

“April showers bring May flowers,” said Sterl. “We’re going to Omaha.”

An Easter Sunday Shutout

The rubber game on Easter Sunday afternoon was a pitching duel that turned on a fourth-inning Dreiling throw from left field to Dean Curley at shortstop to Farragut High grad Cal Stark at home to tag out Slate Alford trying to score from second on a Dylan Goldstein single. That held the score to 0-0. 

In the UT half of the fourth, Bargo slammed a 345-foot homer to right, Tears hit a Texas Leaguer single to left center, went to third on a Dreiling double, and scored on a balk. Dreiling scored from third on a Chapman’s sacrifice fly to deep center. UT was up 2-0. 

In the seventh inning Hunter Ensley made a remarkable diving catch in center to end the inning. “That was insane,” said Vitello. “I’d like to know how many yards he slid on that dive. How are you not inspired by that?” 

Lefty Zander Sechrist, known for chewing multiple pieces of bubble gum during games, went six innings, his longest career appearance, striking out seven and allowing just four hits and no runs. “My arm’s gonna hurt tomorrow, I won’t lie,” Sechrist said. “The fastball was playing well, change-up, too. It kinda felt good being from Georgia and all.” He said he was pleased to have Nate Snead relieve him with his notable velocity. “I’m just a craft lefty that can’t even touch 95,” he said with a chuckle. Snead, a Wichita State transfer, pitched the last three innings after closing with an inning and a third the evening before. It was the first time Georgia had been shut out all season.

Third baseman Billy Amick, a Clemson transfer, missed the Georgia weekend with an appendix procedure. With a .367 average and 10 homers at mid-season, he has earned a nickname, referring to his deft use of the barrel of the bat. “Billy just being Billy, man,” said Moore to the Daily Beacon’s Trevor McGee after a big game earlier in the season. “I call him ‘Billy Barrels.’ You know he’s going to do what he does best, and that’s hit.”

Moore, a junior from Brooklyn, New York, was part of the Boys Club of New York Independent Schools Program that helped promising youngsters develop their academic and athletic skills and place them in boarding schools. As a middle schooler, Christian went to Cardigan Mountain School in New Hampshire. “The idea was to put him in a school where he could academically thrive,” said Bill Mitchell, longtime director of the ISP program, which began in 1957.

In the summers, Christian played on showcase teams seen by college coaches and scouts. As John Adams noted in a News Sentinel column, Moore, then a 90-m.p.h. pitcher, started hearing from Vitello in eighth grade, always on Tuesdays. “I still remember it like it was yesterday,” said Moore. “T for Tuesday and Tennessee.” He went to Baylor School in Chattanooga for tenth grade, then switched to Suffield Academy in Connecticut, to be closer to home. With 37 career homers at midseason, Moore was pushing toward the same record passed by Burke and getting used to his role as leadoff hitter. On the road to Omaha, his team leadership will be an essential factor.

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