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Tennessee’s Secrets to Success: Locking In, Having Fun and Competing at High Level

HOOVER, Ala. — After several storm-fueled delays, No. 1 Tennessee didn’t take long to shift into high gear in Hoover.

Against a Vanderbilt team that has long been the standard in college baseball, Tennessee put up double-digit runs and played a defensive masterpiece — good enough for a 10-1 win that vaults the Vols into the third round on Friday while simultaneously notching just their fourth 50-win season in program history.

Not only that — it also marks a complete sweep of the Commodores this season after Tennessee took three games in Nashville earlier this year.

“They play with a tremendous amount of confidence,” said Vandy coach Tim Corbin, “attacking from all areas.

“One of the better teams I’ve seen in the 20 years I’ve been around, without question. Tony’s done a good job with those guys.”

So, for such a quick program revival and such dominance in every facet, Tennessee must enter every game focused on winning. Right?

Wrong.

“Winning is an outcome for what we’re doing,” explained Evan Russell early Thursday night. “Our approach isn’t to win a game, it’s to have fun and enjoy what we do. To compete as highly as we can. Winning is the effect of it.”

“50 wins is cool and all. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't,” added Drew Gilbert, the briefest trailings of a “meh” tone in his voice. “I think it's just kind of a product of us taking everything game by game, not looking too far ahead or looking in the past.

“Just understanding that every day is an opportunity to get better, whether it's at practice or at the game, so we've just kind of been using that all year.”

That also goes for Trey Lipscomb — who many argued should have been named SEC Player of the Year rather than the co-winners, LSU’s Dylan Crews and Auburn’s Sonny Dichiara.

“Those guys are deserving, but if you're going into a courtroom and argue Trey Lipscomb should have won the award -- because my phone got blown up with SEC Player of the Year,” said Tony Vitello. “Trey knows what he did. And those guys are as good as it gets. Nothing to be ashamed of.

“But that one little difference is that (Lipscomb) plays maybe the most undervalued position in college sports... So he plays that position and plays it very, very well. So that's kind of a difference maker on what he brings to the table every day, and that's the best way I can describe it.”

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In short: respectfully, Lipscomb deserved a little more credit than he received.

He made an award-worthy play Thursday, too, barehanding a grounder before firing to first to prevent the Commodores from scoring in a bases-loaded situation.

Still, such credit would mark another effect of the product this team has created. And the Vols are not focused on the end results, whether in wins or individual awards.

Instead, they’re locked in, taking each day as it comes, “ready to compete at all times,” as Vitello said.

But they aren’t afraid to mix in some fun, too.

Case in point — a spirit-loosening, memory-making practice after Wednesday’s postponement, as players got to interact with fans at Vestavia Hills High School.

“You know, at this point in the season, it's good to get reps and keep improving, but you've got what you've got at this point,” said Russell. “We're going to go out and we're going to have fun and we're going to compete, and it's always nice to have a practice where we can kind of just be free and enjoy being out on the field.

“Because although it's only been a week, it felt like we had been in the hotel for a month and we were ready to just get out there and play baseball.”

That wish will be granted again on Friday night, as the Vols face red-hot LSU — which beat Kentucky 11-6 early Friday morning — in a game that will pit two elite teams and fan bases against one another for a shot at the semifinals.

But don’t think for a second that this Tennessee team will be glued to the scoreboard.

Instead, they’ll be searching internally, stoking the fires of competition and fun that have set the table for the top-ranked Vols to make quite a postseason run.


Cover photo courtesy of Jake Nichols