It had been 16 years since the Tennessee Volunteers baseball team last played in an NCAA Super Regional.
That drought ended Sunday night following UT’s 3-1 win over Liberty (41-16) at Lindsey Nelson Stadium, winning the school’s first regional championship since 2005 and advancing to the super regional round of the NCAA Tournament for the third time in school history.
“I’m just really thrilled for our guys and our fanbase,” UT coach Tony Vitello said. “They certainly deserve the assist; a John Stockton effort, if you will, out of them for the weekend.”
While the Vols (47–16) got impressive pitching from Will Heflin (5.1 innings, four hits, eight strikeouts, one run) and Sean Hunley (3.2 innings, one hit, no runs, five strikeouts), Drew Gilbert yet again stole the show.
After hitting a walk-off grand slam on Friday that lifted the Vols to a 9-8 win over Wright State followed by a solo home run in a 9-3 win over Liberty on Saturday, the 5-foot-9 sophomore added to his growing legend.
Gilbert hit a two-run bomb over the right-center field scoreboard in the bottom of the fifth inning on Sunday that gave UT (48-16) more than enough run support to hold off Liberty on Sunday. Prior to the NCAA Tournament, he hadn’t homered since March 28.
The soon-to-be-21-year-old outfielder became just the second UT player in the last 10 years — joining Luc Lipcius — with a home run in three consecutive games. Not bad for a player who almost didn’t end up in Knoxville in the first place.
“[Vitello] is the reason I wanted to come here,” said Gilbert, who initially committed to Oregon State out of high school. “He made me believe in a vision and I wanted to go somewhere where we could do something special. [We’re] taking some steps in that direction and it’s pretty special to be a part of a team like this. It was the best decision of my life to come here.”
Tennessee now waits to face the winner of No. 14 Oregon and LSU in the Super Regional. The Tigers downed the Ducks on Sunday night and play again on Monday night in a winner-take-all showdown.
“[To win the regional] shows their resiliency,” Vitello said. “…This is the spot we’ve been working for all this year.”
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_