The University of Tennessee was widely heralded as the best college baseball team in a generation. But like so many other top seeds through the years, the Volunteers couldn’t navigate the N.C.A.A baseball playoffs and were eliminated without even making it to the eight-team College World Series.
The playoffs started fine for Tennessee. After a 53-7 regular season and a Southeastern Conference title and No. 1 ranking, Tennessee swept by some lesser competition in the opening rounds.
But it met surprising opposition from Notre Dame in the super regional, the round of 16 stage.
Notre Dame was one of the best unseeded teams in the tournament, but still was hardly expected to beat a Tennessee team that had a host of home run hitters and the best E.R.A. in Division I. Tennessee also had the advantage of playing the best-of-three series at home.
But in the opener, Notre Dame hit home runs in each of the first three innings and took a 5-0 lead against the Tennessee ace Blade Tidwell, then hung on to win, 8-6. It was the first time in 20 years that Notre Dame had beaten the No. 1 team in the country.
Tennessee’s 12-4 win in Game 2 looked a lot more like what fans had expected. And Tennessee seemed as if it would escape the series when it led, 3-1, in the seventh inning in the decider. But back-to-back homers in that inning gave Notre Dame a 4-3 lead, and the Fighting Irish stretched it to a 7-3 final score.
Blame it on the variance of baseball — or some kind of College World Series curse, if you like. No team seeded No. 1 has won the World Series since Miami in 1999. Tennessee is the third straight No. 1 seed not even to make the eight-team World Series, following Arkansas in 2021 and U.C.L.A. in 2019 (the 2020 tournament was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic).
“I think what needs to stick with our guys when time passes: They say time heals all wounds,” Coach Tony Vitello said after losing the series. “I don’t know who ‘they’ are.”
“Fifty-seven, that’s a lot,” he said of the team’s win total, including the playoffs. “A bunch of good kids. A couple maniacs out there.”
Notre Dame returns to the College World Series for the first time in 20 years and third time overall.
Softball’s own superteam, Oklahoma, had no such problems, completing a 59-3 season last week with a Women’s College World Series victory.
Tennessee’s loss made No. 2 Stanford, which qualified for the College World Series with a 10-5 victory over Connecticut on Monday, the new favorite in Omaha. No. 3 Oregon State was also a possible contender, but the Beavers lost, 4-3, to No. 14 Auburn on Monday night at home despite allowing just three hits.
Many of Tennessee’s players will go on to professional careers: Three of them are expected to go in the first round of Major League Baseball’s 2022 draft next month: Tidwell and outfielders Drew Gilbert and Jordan Beck.
But turning pro won’t make them College World Series winners. And Tennessee will still be looking for its first title.