Tennessee baseball returned to the College World Series this June for the first time since 2005, capping off a magical season that saw the Vols win seven games on walk offs.
There’s plenty of reasons to believe that Tennessee should have a team good enough to compete at the top of the SEC in 2022. The Vols return three super seniors while bringing in a pair of talented transfer pitchers and the nation’s No. 5 recruiting class.
However, there’s concerns for Tennessee entering the season. The Vols lost a pair of weekend starters and their best relief pitcher Sean Hunley. On top of that, Tennessee lost four of its five starting infielders.
Included in that group is catcher Connor Pavolony. The Vols also lost backup catcher Jackson Greer to graduation, leaving Vitello’s fifth team with a major question mark behind the plate.
“I’ve told them several times that it’s open season,” Vitello said of the catcher position. “Any given day Josh (Elander) could have four, five, six guys he’s working with and we’re willing to try anything. Some of those guys are infielders or outfielders and there’s a guy like Evan Russell who is just all in on trying to catch, knowing full well he could maybe an (former Tennessee outfielder) Alerick (Soularie) guy for us where he could play second if we had to have him there but has turned into a plus defender in left field. But, open season, show us what you got. We’ve shown everyone we’re more than willing to use two or three guys back there over the course of the season. That’s what I’d like this year to spread the wealth around a little bit. Keep guys fresh, give guys opportunities, whatever umbrella you want to throw that under.”
Tennessee appeared to have some of its catcher questions figured out in July when West Virginia transfer Matt McCormick committed to Tennessee. McCormick is no longer with the Vols program after deciding to take a step back from the game of baseball.
With McCormick no longer on the team, Tennessee has no catchers that have played an inning of college baseball. Charlie Taylor was the Vols’ bullpen catcher last season as a freshman and should have a strong chance to play this season. Vitello and his staff signed a pair of prep catchers in Ryan Miller and Nathan Smith.
However, another potential catcher emerged this offseason when senior Evan Russell decided he would return for a super senior season. Now, the Vols’ left fielder is working at catcher to try and give Tennessee another solid option behind the plate.
“He came in as a guy that hit really well for Team Tennessee at the Sun Belt,” Vitello said of Russell. “He hit a home run off (San Diego Padres’ pitcher Ryan) Weathers in front of the right people in high school and that’s really what opened the door for him to be here. So he was a hitter, so where can this guy play? He’d try to catch. Try. He’d try to play third base. Try. He took one in the cookies there so he moved to the outfield. He wasn’t very good out there and then last year, I mean I call him a plus defender even though he doesn’t have the speed of some SEC outfielders”
On top of Russell catching in high school, the fifth-year senior trying out catcher made sense for a few reasons.
First, his veteran presence and experience should give him both a firm understanding of what his coaches want out of him and a good working relationship with Tennessee’s pitchers.
Second, Tennessee returned its top five outfielders from last season’s team. Drew Gilbert and Jordan Beck will occupy the middle of Tennessee’s lineup, Christian Scott is more than a reliable backup who should compete for playing time and Kyle Booker has the makings of a star after hitting .310 in 58 at-bats as a freshman.
These factors, on top of the questions at catcher, made the experiment make complete sense for Tennessee.
“At the end of the year we had a very personal conversation,” Vitello said. “There was a lot of stuff that was talked about and it was all good, it was just kind of exploratory things. We really wanted to help Evan with the draft, it didn’t work out, so what’s the next thing? Out of that conversation came let’s attack this deal right here. It’s something new, it’s a challenge and it’s what the team needs and it could open the door for a pro opportunity. He’s back there and I think the difference of him as a freshman back there and now is being calm and mature and knowing what’s expected at that position has really made it flow a lot easier. Whether he’s the guy or not, it’s been a smooth process so far.”
Whether Russell earns a serious role as a catcher for Tennessee next spring is still to be determined, but this fall starts another chapter in a memorable college career for fan favorite Evan Russell.