A Nebraska-sized surplus of tension: Tennessee, Texas A&M and a finale on deck

OMAHA, Neb. — Texas A&M and Tennessee have waited 73 years to finally win a Men’s College World Series championship. So, what’s another day? A day when this year’s series could have ended with an Aggies celebration ended instead with a 1-1 push that pushes things to a deciding Game 3 contest Monday night, thanks to a late-inning push for a 4-1 win by the top-seeded Vols.

“To think you’re going to just roll right through in two games, that would be nice,” Texas A&M head coach Jim Schlossnagle confessed, grinning. “But now we get to play — we don’t have to play, we get to play — in the last college baseball game of the season, and that’s awesome.”

Said Tennessee’s Tony Vitello, “There were no trophies or rings or belts awarded today. But what we do get is another chance to have one more game with this team, and it just happens it will be for a national championship.”

In the ballpark tunnel just outside the room where both head coaches held a news conference, their teams crossed paths in the hallway, the Aggies waiting to board their bus, the Volunteers coming off the field after their own post-win Q&As. The SEC rivals, in sweat-stained uniforms and eye black messily smeared down their faces, shook hands and nodded to each other to acknowledge a shared experience.

One player shouted to the others, “Men in the arena! I don’t know about y’all, but I am worn out!”

Diamonds are created using pressure, tension and heat, and while there were no diamonds awarded on the diamond of the Men’s College World Series on Sunday afternoon, there was certainly a Nebraska-sized surplus of pressure, tension and heat. A game that sat at 1-0 for six-plus innings. A standing room only crowd of 25,987 who had crawled and climbed into every nook of Charles Schwab Stadium that provided even a sliver of a view. All in the kiln of a cloudless Omaha afternoon, with an air temperature of 90, humidity of 80% and field conditions that felt like those numbers had been multiplied by two.

The entire day was played both through the looking glass and under the heat of it. Texas A&M’s depleted pitching staff (“It will take a village,” Schlossnagle said entering the weekend) kept Tennessee’s supposedly vicious offense at bay. At one point the Vols’ bats were a brutal 0-for-16 with runners on base and 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position. The Aggies had managed to protect a 1-0 lead generated by a solo first-inning homer via a series of highwire-act defensive plays. The most harrowingly memorable moment was a questionable glove-emptying slow soft toss from second baseman Kaeden Kent, shoveled to first base to arrive half a shoelace ahead of the runner, stranding three Vols on base.

But when Tennessee finally made that statistic 1-for-17, it was very Big Orange “1” in the form of a two-run, homer from left fielder Dylan Dreiling. It was the first time that A&M, previously undefeated in the NCAA tournament, had trailed a game in this year’s MCWS, and it never regained the lead. Characteristic of the contest, however, the Aggies did have the potential game-winning run on deck with no outs in the bottom of the ninth, only to end the game with runners on the corners, left hanging after a 372-foot warning track fly ball also hung, likely slowed by winds that were suddenly blowing in from Iowa.

“We live by the idea of one play at a time, one inning at a time, one game at a time, and I think we do a great job with that,” said A&M pitcher Chris Cortez, who kept Tennessee at bay for more than four innings in the middle of the game. “But there’s no way you can’t feel that tension, especially as the 1-0 score just didn’t change for so long. It feels like something has to give. And it did.”

Vitello agreed: “There were a couple of times where it was, like, ‘Hey, we need to relax or change the mojo a little bit.’ That tension stuff that maybe appeared a time or two since we’ve been here, it clearly doesn’t work.”

A few minutes later, as the coach descended the stage and headed to rejoin his team, he added: “You could really feel that tension, though, couldn’t you? Like, in the entire stadium.”

That was true. A stroll through the packed grandstand carried with it an odd silence, the ballpark organ and the occasional sectional cheer standing out more than normal. Even as Tennessee rushed the field to celebrate the win, the roar that went up was short-lived.

It’s understandable. There is still work to be done, and no one knows that better than those dressed in maroon or Big Orange. Neither program has ever won a baseball national title. They shared their first MCWS appearance in 1951, A&M going home early and Tennessee suffering an upset loss in the title game to Oklahoma. In the seven-plus decades since, both have suffered years of baseball irrelevance despite nice budgets and even nicer in-state high school talent. Over the past decade, both have become baseball powerhouses, but still neither has dogpiled in June.

In other words, hardball heat is nothing new in College Station or Knoxville.

“I would have very much liked to have gotten it all done tonight,” Schlossnagle said, involuntarily darting his eyes down to the paperwork in his hand, no doubt already sorting out the availability of his pitching staff. “But there is something I guess, poetic, about a season that starts in February and a postseason that started a month ago, players who have worked for this their whole lives, and all these years of our fans waiting for a chance to win it all, that all of that would come to a Game 3 tomorrow.”

The 26 hours in between will be filled with all those players seeking ways to stay loose, those coaches sifting through statistics, trends and pitch counts, and those fans from both sides holding beer-marinated discussions about it all.

“I left one of my damn AirPods, so I only had one in [Friday night] and I could hear the party in the street, so last night was tough to sleep,” Vitello said, laughing. “I’ll put both of those in. You just go sound machine, brown noise instead of white noise for me personally. But yeah, you’ve got to eat. You’ve got to rest. I’ve got friends and family in town, but I can’t enjoy Omaha tonight like they can. I think you’ve just got to be a dude, because the team is probably chomping at the bit to get back out there in the old backyard baseball rematch.”

Everyone is. After all, it has been a long wait.

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