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The homey atmosphere of Tennessee baseball overshadows Evansville's Cinderella quest in Game 1

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee. – Oh, to be Cinderella and have to go to Knoxville to play baseball.

They're the Evansville Purple Aces, and they've become the crowd favorite heading into Omaha. If the crowd likes Bracket Busters in June as much as they do in March, it's you. The team that's never seen a Super Regional up close before. The irrepressible squad that started the season 9-15, including a 2-10 stretch, but worked its way up the rankings. The plucky upstarts who are here to show what a mid-major from a northern school in southwest Indiana can do.

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“We know what we're fighting for, what we represent,” coach Wes Carroll said Friday on an afternoon that was so historic for the little guys in baseball. In the end, though, that didn't hold so true anymore when the Purple Aces were overwhelmed by Tennessee, 11-6, in Game 1.

But it's not just about a result, it's about what a team symbolizes and how it tries to deal with that. “Big stage, bright lights,” Carroll would say. “I'm really proud of our guys for going in there and competing.”

You're Evansville, and you were ranked No. 76 in the last RPI. The team in the other dugout was ranked No. 1. You were fourth in your own region. Tennessee is the best team in the entire tournament. You hit an all-time school record with 92 home runs this season. The Vols hit 67 more.

Tennessee has been preparing for this weekend on home turf. Travel delays forced you to crisscross the globe on your way back to Evansville from historic victories at East Carolina. You had 27 hours at home before leaving for Knoxville. But your drive has become something of a fairy tale, and who doesn't hope for a happy ending to a fairy tale? “Everyone likes the underdog,” your home-in-home hitter Kip Fougerousse said the other day. “And I think we're the underdogs right now.”

Everyone likes the underdog, that is, except the assembled crowd at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. They're wearing Evansville's purple and gray. Almost everyone else in the packed house is wearing something orange. This is the place where the home team has won 38-3 and hasn't lost a game since April. Welcome to Knoxville.

You know you have to do something fast to take some of the crowd's enthusiasm away. They really love their Vols here. Take Frank and Susan Fitzgerald of Lafayette, near Nashville, who sit behind home base. Susan has a sign saying Friday is her 49th wedding anniversary and has checked off the boxes of her life. They met at the University of Tennessee, sent four children to be graduate students at UT – “One of them gave us the tickets today,” Frank says – and now have 13 grandchildren thinking about an Orange future. Where else would they have spent their 49th wedding anniversary?

“Next year will be great,” says Susan. “I don't know if we'll be here, but we'll be somewhere.” Probably depends on whether the kids have extra tickets.

That's the kind of enthusiasm you're dealing with and you need to quiet the crowd quickly. But your first three batters all strike out; the first casualties of what should add up to 16. In the bottom half of the inning, Blake Burke hits the seventh Evansville pitch of the game over the right field wall and the Vols have their 160th home run of the season, a 1-0 lead and the noise is already at jumbo jet levels. Even more than East Carolina last weekend, because this is the highest-ranked team you'll face eye to eye.

“I don't think we were as relaxed as I would have liked,” Carroll said later. “I don't feel like our team was as enthusiastic and committed, and we talked about that after the game. It was overwhelming, the crowd, the atmosphere.”

Or as second baseman Cal McGinnis puts it: “Coming here is a little different.”

You hold on for a while. You take a 2-1 lead thanks to a McGinnis home run, fall behind 5-2 and tie the game 5-5. But Tennessee is a wave that can't be stopped. The Vols continue to hit 161…162…163… – and score five runs with two outs. “It's a big challenge to get the third out in every single inning. That's just the way it is,” Carroll says afterward. “That's the most dangerous lineup I've seen in my 16 years as a head coach. Just what they can do with the barrel and their approaches at the plate. I felt like our pitchers did a really good job, but when you look at the stats, it's a different story.”

“We know we have to match them on offense and that's a difficult strategy, especially in this stadium with such a talented team, but we'll try tomorrow.”

That's what it's about now. Tomorrow. Saturday, then, and it starts at 11 a.m. So midnight for Cinderella might come a little earlier. But you'll all show up, this line of four PhD students.

The catcher who played one game in three seasons for Kentucky and has a degree in civil engineering. The shortstop from a place called Santa Claus, Indiana, who began his career Friday with 943 at-bats, more than any other player left in the tournament. The third baseman who was the fourth-best tennis player in his age group in the state of Wisconsin as an elementary school student. The center fielder who contributed two plays to the regional that made SportsCenter's top 10, although Ty Rumsey's playing time is actually questionable after he took a ball in the face while attempting a diving catch on the wall on Friday. Had he been caught, he would have been right back in the top 10. The right fielder who comes from a family that has owned and operated a western department store in Wyoming for 105 years. The left fielder who has worked as a student teacher and taught psychology lectures on game days.

Also the designated hitter, from a small high school in Indiana who played baseball for his dad but also set the school record for three-point shooting. That's Fougerousse, whose bat was so hot it could have set off smoke alarms. He hit nine home runs in his first 47 games this season — and 12 in his next 15, including six straight. He had no home runs on Friday, but he did manage a two-run double. “We're playing with the house money,” he had said of the Aces' casual approach this week. So we'll see what happens Saturday. Tennessee's lineup will still be packed, and the stadium will still be wall-to-wall orange.

“It's going to be a tough battle, but we're going to start pitch one and inning one tomorrow to get back in the game,” Carroll said. “What I know is we're going to leave it on the field, a group with a lot of seniors that will compete and earn everything they're given.”

The second baseman agrees. “We're not going to talk about this game for too long,” says McGinnis. “Rinse out the shampoo and get going tomorrow.”

“The way this team plays – we always say we want to play really relaxed, have a lot of fun and give it our all – I think that will really come true tomorrow.”

As the Aces left their postgame press conference and walked across the field, now even more underdogs than ever, Tennessee players were still standing at the barrier, signing autographs for kids in orange. And somewhere along the way, the happy couple from outside Nashville were driving home to celebrate the rest of their anniversary. Isn't it great to be home?