It’s almost baseball time on Rocky Top. Beginning this Friday, Feb. 19 at Georgia Southern University, the 2021 Tennessee baseball season will be under way. In the meantime, fans of the No. 19 ranked Vols have a smidge of content to hold them over before the series begins.
John Wilkerson of the Vol Network moderated the First Pitch Preseason Show on Monday night. The virtual event, which included interviews with former players as well as members of the current coaching staff, gave fans an up-close look on what to expect from this year’s team.
Head coach Tony Vitello opened the virtual event describing the shortened 2020 season as “bittersweet”. Last year’s Vols squad went 15-2 with wins over ranked opponents such as Texas Tech and Stanford. The season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic before the in-conference SEC schedule began.
On Monday night, though, Vitello was focused on the positives that the shortened 2020 season brought his team. The fourth-year head coach cited improvements in team chemistry, big wins away from home, and three players being selected in the 2020 MLB Draft as stepping stones for what he hopes to accomplish this spring.
So, what can Tennessee baseball fans expect from Vitello’s 2021 squad? How encouraged should they be about this upcoming season? Here are three takeaways from Monday night’s First Pitch Preseason Show.
1. Tony Vitello’s program is headed in the right direction
Since Tony Vitello was hired as Tennessee baseball’s head coach prior to the 2018 season, the Vols have amassed an 84-50 overall record. In 2019, Vitello led the Vols to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2005.
Wilkerson noted that Vitello hasn’t had to make any coaching changes since he was hired at Tennessee and asked Danny White what that continuity does for the rebuild of a program. Here’s what Tennessee’s Athletc Director had to say about Vitello’s consistency and leadership:
“It’s awesome to have those relationships with the student athletes throughout their progression from freshman through junior-senior year. It’s also really important to have consistency with relationships in recruiting. It’s a testament to Tony’s leadership to have that kind of consistency. I’m sure it’s bode well for the program thus far and will continue into the future.”
The school recently announced that all season tickets for the 2021 season have sold out, so it seems as though fans are convinced this program is headed down the right path as well. There’s plenty of evidence for that over the past three years.
Elite players poised for the next level
In 2020, three Tennessee baseball players were selected in the MLB Draft, extending the programs streak to seven years of multiple players being drafted. Already, there’s buzz surrounding a few of this year’s Vols as MLB prospects to watch in 2021.
One of those talented ball players garnering preseason honors is junior catcher Connor Pavolony. The 6’1″ 195 pound Woodstock, Ga. native was listed as D1Baseball.com’s No. 39 College MLB Draft prospect and also picked up Preseason Second Team All-American honors. Here’s what recruiting coordinator and catchers coach Josh Elander said about Pavolony’s hard work paying off.
“It’s always good when you get to see guys’ hard work start to pay off a little bit. But the best part about him and really all of the guys on our team is they’re not really worried about that at this time. They’re worried about trying to win games for the ‘Tennessee’ on the chest, we’ll let this thing play out on the individual basis this spring.”
“Really with him, he’s such an elite defensive catcher, all he’s gotta do is handle the bat just a little bit. But for him that wasn’t enough, he’s gone to that next level there as well.”
Junior utility infielder/ outfielder Max Ferguson has also received quite a bit of recognition heading into the 2021 season. The Atlantic Beach, Fla. native was named D1baseball.com’s No. 24 College MLB Draft Prospect and a Preseason First Team All-American by Baseball America.
Schedule provides competitive games weekly
As is the case with Tennessee’s football team, the school’s baseball team plays in the top collegiate conference in America. The SEC consistently houses the most competitive teams in college baseball while supplying the MLB Draft with amble prospects year-in and year-out.
ESPN College baseball color analyst and former Tennessee baseball star Chris Burke believes that’ll again be the case in 2021. Burke, who was the SEC Player of the Year in 2001 with the Vols before being drafted by the Houston Astros, spoke to Wilkerson about what the Vols are up against this season.
“You look at one of Tennessee’s arch-rivals, Florida somehow was not affected (by the MLB Draft) at all, so they’re going to bring back some big-time fourth year starters especially on the mound. You look at Vanderbilt, their two most talented starters weren’t draft eligible last year so they’re bringing those kids back.”
“You get places like Baseball America projecting as many as 12 SEC teams to maybe make the regionals. We say it every year but the SEC is going to be insanely deep and I could certainly see a scenario where 10-11, I don’t know if the math works out for 12 teams, but it’s going to be an SEC-heavy NCAA tournament this year I have no doubt.”
The Tennessee baseball Volunteers kick off the 2021 season this Friday, Feb. 19 on the road against the Georgia Southern Eagles on ESPN+. Conference play won’t begin until March 19, when the Vols will travel to Athens, Ga. to face the Georgia Bulldogs.