KNOXVILLE — Sean Hunley never envisioned hosting a NCAA regional inside Lindsey Nelson Stadium when he joined the program in 2018, but that all changed a year ago as Tennessee leapt into the national spotlight.
It became the expectation for the Vols this season after the pandemic cost it that experience ago, and they made it a reality Monday as Tennessee received the No. 3 national seed during the NCAA tournament selection show.
“I didn’t know what to expect (when I got here),” Hunley said. “We were average in my first year, and it’s a testament to our coaches for the culture they’ve brought and the fight that we bring every day to the field.
“We’re excited to get this thing rolling.”
Tennessee (45-16) will open its first home regional since 2005 against Wright State at 6 p.m. Friday. Liberty and Duke comprise the rest of regional and will face off at noon.
The Vols have history they would rather forget against both Wright State and Liberty, having dropped the final series of the 2020 season against Wright State and suffering a loss to Liberty in the first round of the 2019 Chapel Hill Regional.
“It’s easy to use that as fuel, but in this game, it is so hard because we can either use it as motivation or we can tense up a little bit and want to try to hard,” Tennessee senior Evan Russell said. “In this game, if you try to hard, it will bite you in the tail.
“We have to balance it, but I think we have a lot of guys just relaxed and confident.”
Duke rounds out a difficult regional, entering on a 12-game winning streak, including four wins in five days to win the ACC tournament. The Blue Devils’ run creates some momentum after a regular season in which it went 16-17 in ACC play and lost every major series it played amongst the higher ups of the conference.
“You can be a different team as the season evolves,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said. “A guy may figure a thing out or two, so you have to look at that, but on the opposite side of that spectrum, the regular season is the regular season, and then you kind of begin a unique little season of its own with your conference tournament. Both of those are now over with, so we’ll leave those in the past and hang our hats on the accomplishments that have taken place during those (conference tournaments) but also start anew and have a blank slate in this regional.”