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Nichols: Even in SEC title loss, bounce-back Vols show they’re far from done

Despite losing Sunday’s SEC title game 7-2, Tennessee has a lot more baseball left to play.

HOOVER, Ala. — The moment was almost too perfect for Pete Derkay.

With Tennessee fans chanting “Overrated!” toward star-studded Arkansas reliever Kevin Kopps, Derkay cranked his hips, put bat to ball and hammered a towering home run in the bottom of the seventh inning in Sunday’s SEC Tournament championship.

Derkay’s only problem? The solo shot still left Tennessee trailing 4-2, as Arkansas had used a three-run fifth inning to storm back earlier in the game.

After Derkay’s shot, the Razorbacks regrouped for an onslaught that ended with a 7-2 victory that notched their first SEC Tournament title in program history.

Meanwhile, Tennessee missed out on its first tournament title since 1995. Sunday’s championship still marked the Vols’ first title game appearance since the same year.

Hot start, cold finish

Tennessee started hot on Sunday, as Jake Rucker smacked a two-out double in the bottom of the first before Drew Gilbert brought Rucker sliding across home for a 1-0 lead.

At that point, a crowd of win-thirsty, orange-clad fans could taste blood.

Yet they never tasted victory. 

The Vols’ biggest threat to extend their lead came in the bottom of the third inning, as Liam Spence drew a two-out walk to load the bases for Tennessee. 

But Max Ferguson flew out to center, and Arkansas’ Jalen Battle responded with an RBI single before Zack Gregory knocked an RBI double to give the Hogs a 2-1 lead. 

Arkansas’ lead increased to 3-1 off a Matt Goodheart sacrifice fly, and Battles rifled a solo shot for a 4-1 lead before Derkay whittled the deficit to two.

Plenty to go, plenty to learn

For Tennessee, the good news is that the postseason run doesn’t end here.

The Vols will be hosting a regional next weekend in Knoxville, a fate that was assumed before being officially revealed on Sunday night.

“It’s why you fight all year long for home field advantage,” Vitello said. “If you can win 15 games, it’s a hell of a year. If you win 17, you play at home like we will next week.”

The environment in Knoxville should be electric, and it makes the buzz on Sunday — and that of the entire week in Hoover — even more impactful.

“If you told us at the beginning of the tournament that we’d make it to the end, we wouldn’t have believed you,” said Rucker. “It was good for guys who haven’t experienced a playoff atmosphere. We can use this to help us out in Regionals and further.”

Sunday’s ‘playoff atmosphere’ included a chilling flyover before the first pitch. In that moment, Vitello said his team learned another important lesson about keeping emotions in check.

“There’s an assortment of things that will help them from this week, and the number one thing is today,” he said. “My heart started beating during the anthem, and I told our guys they’d be ready to run through a brick wall.”

Tennessee’s players affirmed the feeling. But the Vols also affirmed their bounce-back mentality, especially when Derkay blasted his one-run homer.

“If there’s ever any chance for your team to quit, it’s with the Golden Spikes Award winner on the mound with a lead,” said Vitello. 

Tennessee didn’t. Instead, the Vols did what they always do: they looked forward.

Even trailing by three runs, even against a pitcher many have compared to former Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera — the Vols still kept swinging.

That mindset is what makes this team so dangerous, especially with a whole new season on the horizon.

“We’re not going to get caught up in what happened yesterday,” said Derkay. “We’re really good at turning the page and putting all our chips on the table.”

And when that page flips to a Knoxville regional?

Well, it will mark another memorable moment for Derkay and the Vols.

“It was just unbelievable to look up in the stands and see that much orange,” he said Sunday. “I love this fan base, and we want to go out and give them a good show.”

Something tells me this team will next weekend.