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Championship preview: What's at stake for two legendary programs

Written by 
Published in Breaking News
Saturday, 22 June 2024 15:35

OMAHA, Neb. -- Any stroll in or around Charles Schwab Field is an instant history lesson on the teams that have celebrated a Men's College World Series title. There are plaques lining the wall that separates center field from the outside world, broken up by decades, all the way back to the first MCWS in 1947. There are banners mounted to the towering walls of the main concourse, listing every champ, five teams at a time. And finally, there is the mural on Mike Fahey Street, one of the most popular pregame selfie spots, with pennants posted for every college baseball program that has ever been the sport's last team standing, er, dogpiling.

There are 31 champions in all, from the blue bloods -- OK, purple, burnt orange and cardinal bloods -- of LSU, Texas and USC, to the legendary underdogs and wonder dogs of Coastal Carolina, Holy Cross and Fresno State. Rice, Michigan, Pepperdine, Wichita State, so many schools from so many regions over so many years.

Except two glaring MIA programs. The very two that will be competing this weekend for their first baseball natty and long-denied Omaha glory.

"It does seem odd, doesn't it?" confessed Jim Schlossnagle, coach of the Texas A&M Aggies, a proud program with a Rome-like ballpark built for intimidation and an eight-time MCWS participant, with no rings to show for it. Yet. "You look at the coaches, players and history, especially recent history of us and them and you'd think one of us would have won this at some point along the way."

"That's the truth," agreed Tony Vitello, leader of a Tennessee Volunteers baseball program that has come up empty during its previous six Omaha visits, a number that seems mighty paltry for a ballclub that has produced the likes of just elected Baseball Hall of Famer Todd Helton, 2012 Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey and two years ago a foursome of All-Americans in the same season. "When you dig into the history and these teams and see the commitment that our schools have made to baseball, it's odd that neither one of us has won a College World Series. But one of us is about to fix that problem."

The threads that intertwine to connect the Aggies and Vols reach much further than shared June tournament frustration. The first time they appeared in the same MCWS was 73 years ago, the second series held in Omaha, when they were in the same eight-team field but never played in 1951. In attendance to see Tennessee be upset in the title game by Oklahoma was Gen. Robert Neyland ... yes, the man whose name is on Tennessee's football stadium and whose statue guards its front gate. But before Neyland coached the Vols to four gridiron national titles, he was a freshman baseball and football player at A&M for coach Charley Moran, who had played football at Tennessee. As Tennessee's athletic director, Neyland worked to make Volunteer baseball relevant. It was. Neyland retired in 1952 and the Vols didn't return to Omaha for another 44 years, when Helton led them to the semifinals.

The Aggies also suffered an MCWS drought, returning in 1964 but not again until 1993, when they came in as the No. 1 national seed, but went 1-2 and were sent home early. Since 1993, they have had more than 80 players taken in the MLB draft, and they're in Omaha for the third time in the past seven years.

Alas, no trophies.

That was easier to live with back in the day, when college baseball was still largely a West Coast sport. But over the past decade and a half, Tennessee and Texas A&M have been forced to watch teams from their conference win nine of the past 13 MCWS. Even worse, that postseason wealth has been spread among six other teams, none of which came from College Station or Knoxville.

"This is a school that people have been very loyal to," Vitello said of Tennessee, where he has been head coach for seven seasons, all on an upward trajectory, including being ranked No. 1 in the nation for huge chunks of the past several seasons, only to come up short. "I think regardless of how these guys have done ... it's been pretty incredible how positive people are and how loyal they are, for being in the SEC, because people are usually only as loyal as how the wins go by."

"It would mean so much," Schlossnagle said when asked about the meaning of finally bringing home the NCAA trophy that was sitting inches away from him during Friday's pre-championship news conference. He came close multiple times during his 18 seasons at TCU, moving to A&M three years ago, in part to experience the school's massive fan base, known by a singular title. "The 12th Man is just so special. If I start talking about it too much, I'll start crying. They are a unique, special group of people and it would be awesome to reward that."

Vitello also had to work to keep from getting choked up during his news conference, pushed to the edge of tears when he started talking about Pat Summitt, who led the Lady Vols women's basketball program to eight national titles. Vitello never knew Summitt. She died in 2016, two years before he arrived on campus. But he walks past her statue nearly every day and likes to walk into Thompson-Boling Arena to look at the banners in the rafters.

"The banners are cool, but it's not what everybody talks about," Vitello said. "It's how she went about her business, what type of character she instilled in her players. I think that's what her championship was, despite all the banners. The byproduct was a whole hell of a lot of wins. She was a winner."

So is Vitello. So is Schlossnagle. So are their respective baseball programs and athletic departments. But pain is also a huge part of Tennessee's and Texas A&M's sports personalities. Summitt's last national title came 16 years ago. Tennessee's last football natty was a decade before that. Its last NCAA team championship was in women's track and field in 2009. College Station just added a women's tennis trophy to the case one month ago, but in a city built on football tradition, the Aggies' last gridiron national title was in 1939. Even the story of the 12th Man is about what almost happened but never did. In 1922, A&M student E. King Gill came out of the press box and suited up in the middle of the Dixie Classic because the injury-riddled football team was short on players. King never played. His statue that stands outside of Kyle Field is a monument to loyalty, but it's also testament to the tension of promise.

For those thousands of fans and alums who have spent their lives rooting for Tennessee and Texas A&M, that tension has become a huge part of their identities, for most of their living years. So, imagine what it would feel like to finally be able to let that go?

"Everybody comes and joins this program because you want to win a championship. You want to be the best, you want to beat the best, you want to play against the best," A&M pitcher Ryan Prager said. "To the guys who played here before us, you see the support they still bring back. Guys that were on the 2022 [semifinalist] team, guys who were on the teams before that. They care. To be able to do it for them, to give them a sense of accomplishment."

That's why, on Friday night, the eve of the title series, the lobbies of their two team hotels, located side by side within sight of Charles Schwab Field, began filling with those former Aggies and Vols. Twentysomethings and gray hairs, utility players and All-Americans, all rolling into the Midwest for a hardball homecoming, perhaps with the Hollywood -- no, Omaha -- ending that has eluded these proud programs ever since the Men's College World Series first played ball nearly 80 years ago.

"I hope they all come," said Tennessee pitcher Kirby Connell, a fifth-year player as famous for his "Vollie Fingers" mustache as his bullpen work. "I hope all the former players are here with all these fans and we can all celebrate together. Finally."

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