Before there was Christian Moore, Chase Burns, Zane Denton and everyone else who collaborated on Tennessee’s NCAA regional baseball championship, there had to be Dylan Dreiling.
Would what transpired in Clemson, S.C. – especially the 14-inning conquest of the host school on Saturday night – been possible without Dreiling’s warm-up act on a Friday night six weeks ago? Back then, with two outs in the ninth inning and two strikes on the freshman pinch-hitter, Dreiling reached down for a low pitch and swatted a game-tying homer over Lindsey Nelson Stadium’s right-field fence against Vanderbilt.
Just like the wondrous Saturday night in Clemson, there were several other heroes that evening. Denton and Kaveras Tears hit homers. Tears’ home run led off the ninth. Pitcher Burns rehearsed for his relief performance against Clemson with three clutch innings against the Commodores. Finally, Griffin Merritt’s homer in the 12th inning was the decisive blow of the 4-3 victory.
But Dreiling’s moment was the moment of truth. It was the last-chance feat that bound all the other heroics together. In turn, the victory, more than any other, reversed the course of Tennessee’s season. The Vols went on to sweep the Commodores that weekend. They began transforming from a team that might not make the tournament into one that could be hosting a Super Regional this weekend. A jigsaw puzzle that has required considerable assembly time and effort suddenly six weeks later is taking the shape of a pretty mosaic.
This sort of cause-and-effect sleuthing might have been beyond the players as they rode home Monday following Sunday’s 9-2 clinching victory over Charlotte. Coach Tony Vitello was wise to promote a different sort of mind game for the journey, advising them to relish the regional championship.
“It needs to be enjoyed more because it was challenging,” he said. “We’ve said that in team meetings. That when things are difficult and you have to really work for something, it makes it sweeter. And then I also think it prepares you a little bit better.”
Connecting the past with the present is more to Vitello’s liking. He’s an old-soul type, a coach who’s the son of a coach. He spoke to his father, Greg, apparently immediately after Saturday’s dramatics. He related some details during his postgame press conference. However brief, they had the type of conversation that probably has unfolded countless times before.
“The first thing he said – I thought congrats was coming – and he said he would have done a lot of things differently,” Vitello said. “I said the same thing.”
In the same press conference, Vitello had earlier referenced his father regarding the teams he coached and their knack for peaking at the end of the year.
“There’s no recipe for that,” Vitello said. “You might play your best stat sheet game somewhere in the middle of the year.”
It’s only about one stat at this point, however. A peak performance - whatever it takes, whoever contributes – equates to one objective: winning. By now, the Vols are well-versed in how hard it can be. But they’re also appreciating that the result only gets sweeter.
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since 1988. He is a 2022 inductee to the Tennessee Sportswriters Hall of Fame. He can be reached at email@example.com.