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Irish vs. Volunteers becomes a battle of motivation vs. experience

| Sunday, June 12, 2022

KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE — Sunday will mark the one year anniversary of Game 1 of the 2021 Super Regionals for Notre Dame and Tennessee, a time long before their paths crossed in this year’s Super Regional. It was at this stage where both teams seasons took different paths last year. The Volunteers swept LSU, reaching the College World Series for the first time since 2005. Notre Dame’s last CWS appearance came three years before that in 2002. The Irish were one win away from ending that drought in Starkville a season ago. But they couldn’t contain the bats of the eventual champions Mississippi State, falling 11-7 in the decisive Game 3.

For the second straight season, one of these teams will advance to college baseball’s biggest stage, and one will not. Which team that will be is to be decided Sunday at 1 p.m. in Knoxville. A national audience on ESPN will be watching. Both teams bring some of the same things to the table.

Tennessee is the top home run hitting team in the country, but the Irish launched four long balls in their series-opening win on Friday. Notre Dame has an outstanding pitching staff, but the Volunteers led the nation in ERA. Both teams are near the top of the country in fielding percentage. They are probably more similar than different between the lines.

But that’s not all that determines the outcome of a baseball game. “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical,” legendary Yankees catcher Yogi Berra once quipped.

Cliches are common in sports, perhaps more so than in most parts of life. But cliches usually have at least a little bit of truth in them. And Notre Dame and Tennessee carry the weight and benefits of two very popular but different cliches from their past into Sunday’s winner-take-all showdown.

Ryan Vigilante | The Observer
The Notre Dame baseball team gathers for a pre-game prayer on June 11, 2022, before taking on Tennessee at Lindsey Nelson Stadium on Saturday. The Volunteers defeated the Irish, 12-4.

Tennessee’s Super Regional experience a factor in Knoxville

While every day is a brand new, what happened before may carry over. How much carries over is the question, but even a little can make the difference. Having the experience of “what it takes to win” is one of the biggest cliches in sports. And Tennessee has that on their side. Volunteers coach Tony Vitello downplayed the significance of it, but did not discredit it completely.

“I think going into the weekend it does,” Vitello said when asked if Tennessee‘s experience of advancing past the Super Regional last year gives them an advantage over Notre Dame, who has not done so in 20 years.

“It kinda gives you a vision of how it’ll go, some things you would or would not do,” he said.

Even with the stakes at their highest, Tennessee appears to be at their calmest.

“Tomorrow — it’s a ballgame. You go home, you go home. Home’s a good place to be. It ain’t life and death,” said Vitello. “[I‘m] blessed with a lot of guys who do that. Sometimes it boils over and they take it to an extreme, but I think it’s comforting to come to work and know that guys are looking forward to competing… even though you get punched in the gut, the mouth, and other places sometimes.”

Later, Vitello added, “Something negative or the punch in the gut thing can take you off course, but you can also get too excited.”

Perhaps that last line is what happened to the Irish on Saturday. After launching four home runs on Friday, it was hard to find a hard hit ball by an Irish player not named Jack Zyska. The senior first baseman had four hits while the rest of the Notre Dame lineup combined for three, none for extra bases. However, Friday’s victory gave the Irish a margin for error. That’s something they did not have last year when they lost their first Super Regional game in a back-and-forth 9-8 decision.

Irish seek to avenge 2021

So much of what Notre Dame has done over the last year has been aimed at advancing past this stage, the round that tripped them up last season. When they lost Game 3 last year, the Irish talked about the disappointment of seeing the Bulldogs dog pile in front of them and how much hungrier it would make them to trade positions when next year rolled around. Next year is finally here.

But that only made it that much more surprising to hear Link Jarrett barely mention it during Saturday’s post-game press conference. However, the one time he did bring it up, what Jarrett said was telling.

“We can’t duplicate this (Super Regional series). You can’t duplicate Starkville, the regional or this.”

The Irish certainly don’t seem to be wavering their focus from the task at hand. But it would be surprising, if almost impossible, if the players and coaches who experienced last year’s Super Regional heartbreak firsthand didn’t at least have a passing thought about how last season ended. Jarrett is correct —  Notre Dame can’t duplicate Starkville, can’t fix the mistakes that doomed them a season ago. But they can fix the mistakes that plagued them on Saturday. There is still time to return to the timely aggressiveness that has carried the Irish to the cusp of their 40th win.

Both teams have different types of experience and motivation on their side. Not only missing the College World Series but regressing in their playoff progress would be agonizing for the nation’s No. 1 seed in Tennessee. The same could apply to the Irish if they finish one win short of Omaha once again. Tennessee may be the only side with a recent Super Regional win. But the Irish have won plenty of games over the last two seasons, more than the vast majority of teams in college baseball.

Which side is the better one to be on? Whichever one manages their unique emotions better — that will very likely be the one who earns a ticket to Omaha.

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About Andrew McGuinness

Andrew McGuinness is a rising junior in Siegfried Hall from Haddonfield, New Jersey, a short drive away from Philadelphia. Naturally, he loves all of his Philadelphia sports teams, even if they don't always love him back. Feel free to reach out to talk sports or TV shows, especially if they're Stranger Things, Survivor, or/and Ted Lasso.

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