Friendship, Loss And Dutch Breathing Practices: Will Mabrey’s Rise To One Of The SEC’s Best Relievers

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Tennessee pitcher Will Mabrey received a Snapchat last June as the Vols marched towards their first College World Series appearance since 2005. 

It was then-Tennessee Smokies pitcher Ethan Roberts providing a suggestion on a new grip for Mabrey to try as the sophomore pitcher continued tinkering with a cutter/slider to add to his repertoire.

That Snapchat was the start of Mabrey unlocking his full potential on the mound and developing into one of Tennessee’s best pitchers.

While it was the start of the Tennessee native reaching his full potential, it was far from the start of Mabrey’s commitment to be great and make it big.

Through loss, friendship and a Dutch breathing practice Will Mabrey developed into one of the SEC’s best relief pitchers.

March 2020 Changes Mabrey’s Life

On the night of March 2 into the early hours of March 3 a EF-4 tornado with winds of 175 mph touched down in Mabrey’s hometown of Cookeville, Tennessee. The tornado started in “Echo Valley” in the small bordering town of Baxter.

The tornado was on a direct path to hit the Mabrey family home on the Baxter-Cookeville line. Mercifully, the tornado picked up and went around the house, leaving it undamaged.

“My dad was awake and my grand mom was asleep,” Mabrey said. “It would have torched our house. It was an EF4, or whatever it was, it killed 19 people and injured a lot more so it was definitely a blessing not to have that happen because financially I don’t know what would have happened.”

Mabrey was in Knoxville just over two weeks into his freshman season when the tornado devastated his hometown. The left-handed pitcher made his final appearance of his freshman season a day later, posting a scoreless inning in a, 28-2, massacre of Longwood.

Nine days later the SEC canceled its opening weekend of conference play as Tennessee was about to board a bus to South Carolina. The SEC canceled the remainder of the season within a week.

Mabrey returned home to Cookeville, and like much of the world, unsure of what was next. Nothing could prepare him for the forthcoming tragedy.

In the early hours of March 31, Will’s older brother — Joshua Wayne Mabrey — passed away in a Florida hotel room from a fentanyl overdose. He was 25 years old. Joshua checked into a rehab facility in Florida around a month before his death. 

Joshua suffered from a serious concussion following a car crash in the years prior that changed the older Mabrey brother’s life.

“He was never really the same after that concussion and got into drugs being a follower,” Mabrey said. “It’s a sick sick world when it comes to drugs, and it’s a big problem.”

The death rocked Will. The freshman, admittedly, had “never experienced a loss like that or a trauma in my life like that.”

That trauma led to Mabrey not attending his brother’s visitation. Instead, his lasting memory of Joshua was him coming to his game and a shared love of baseball.

“My last memory of my brother — which I still have the picture — is him at my baseball game,” Mabrey said “It’s the last time I saw him. … I know it seems weird that I wouldn’t even go to get that grieving process over with by going to see him, but I remember the last memory of my brother is at my game.”

Baseball has been a major part of Mabrey’s life since he was three-years old and his brother was always in the center of that. Joshua played baseball at Bryan College — a small school in Dayton, Tennessee — and the game bonded the brothers.

“I made a promise to him that I would play in the big leagues and I remember telling him that and he was so proud of my success and that’s really what kickstarted everything,” Mabrey said.

The next step for Mabrey was summer baseball where he headed to the midwest to play in the Northwoods League. He returned to the ‘Volunteer State’ with a bolstered commitment to his baseball future, ready to fulfill the promise he made to his brother.

“The whole strides really kicked in when that happened,” Mabrey said. “It’s like an escape and like a mental place I know what I want to do. I know what I’m going to do with my life.”

A Beneficial Friendship Helps Mabrey Find Missing Piece On Mound

Mabrey returned home from summer ball with more than just an increased commitment and desire to improve but with a plan.

“I came back from summer ball in the Northwoods and I wanted to get better,” Mabrey said. “I was throwing my hardest then and I was like I’m coming back, I’m training with Ethan (Roberts) and catching his lessons for like 10 bucks a lesson. … I would make some money and also be able to throw and do my stuff afterwards.”

Mabrey first met Sparta native Ethan Roberts two-years earlier at a meet-and-greet following Tennessee Tech’s run to the Super Regionals in the 2018 NCAA Tournament.

Roberts — who made his MLB debut with the Chicago Cubs last weekend — was a heavily used bullpen arm on that Tennessee Tech team, posting 2.30 ERA in 78.1 innings pitched.

At that point, Mabrey knew he was going to play college baseball and he figured starting a relationship with a successful college pitcher from the same area as him would be beneficial. Roberts tried to get Mabrey to do lessons with him in his closing months in Cookeville but they never happened due to Mabrey’s busy schedule and “because I didn’t have the money to really go do lessons.”

Their relationship truly picked up when Mabrey started working with Roberts in 2020. Two of the only players from the Cookeville area to find big-time success on the diamond, the two bonded instantly. 

Their relationship has moved far past baseball with Mabrey eating and spending time with Roberts’ family when they were both home.

“He’s one of my best friends. I talk to him just about every single day,” Mabrey said.

Back on the mound, Mabrey dealt with injuries in his sophomore season before earning a role on the fringe of Tennessee’s bullpen. With a strong fastball and an inconsistent curveball, Tennessee had been looking for Mabrey to add a cutter or slider since he arrived on campus.

“The fastball plays,” Tennessee assistant coach Richard Jackson said. “It’s a high spin rate fastball, which you can take that with a grain of salt, it’s tough to hit. He had success when he threw it and when he would try to flip in his little breaking ball it got hit hard so that was when he started working on the cutter and stuff like that.”

Mabrey had worked to add a cutter/slider from the time he got on campus, but couldn’t find the right feel until receiving the Snapchat from Roberts in June. 

Roberts — who saw the same thing Tennessee’s coaches did — knew he needed a pitch with the movement of a cutter or slider.

“I was like ‘You need something hard so that you can just run one in and you can backdoor it too,’” Roberts said. “I showed him the grip I was using and would manipulate to get around and get 17-18 inches out of and he’s just kind of staying more on his line more with it and not really getting around it. (He) changed his grip up a little bit. His thumb’s not in the same place as mine. Everybody’s different. He’s throwing it on the outer third of the ball, but he’s throwing it like a heater, so instead of his getting 14 inches it’s getting like five.”

When told Roberts’ explanation of the pitch, Mabrey was quick to add that he gets “a little bit more than five inches.” 

Mabrey started working heavily on the pitch in summer ball following the season and quickly found the feel for the pitch. The 6-foot left-hander’s ability to throw the pitch with different grips allows him to manipulate the break and keep batters off balance.

“The grip, it’s weird,” Mabrey said. “I actually can go up on the ball more and if I want it more sweeping I can scoop my fingers up more, but if I want to have it shorter and harder I can scoot my fingers back. So I know which way to do that.”

Whether it’s defined as a cutter or a slider, it’s been incredibly effective and Mabrey’s best pitch this season.

“I’m comfortable throwing it in any situation.”

A Mental Change And A Breakout Season

Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello called Mabrey’s new pitch one of, “a lot of tiny adjustments that have turned into one big adjustment.”

When asked about Mabrey’s improvement, nearly everyone discusses his mental growth. Mabrey came back to campus in the fall and immediately impressed with his new pitch. However, when Tennessee scrimmaged Georgia State in Chattanooga — the first of two fall scrimmages — the Panthers shelled Mabrey.

“It’s one of the worst outings of my career, in my opinion,” Mabrey said. “I was out there rushing through things. I wasn’t breathing.”

That is the first of two main ways Mabrey has grown mentally. Entering his junior season, Mabrey finally figured out the breathing aspect of pitching from watching breathing videos on YouTube from Dutch motivational speaker Wim Hoff.

While doing the exercises, Mabrey envisioned himself in an abundance of situations on the mound.

“I would do it a lot before I go to bed and it’s just where you breathe big breaths and out really fast and in the moments when he has you hold your breath — it’s kind of weird — I would visualize myself in situations I would come in with,” Mabrey said. “I swear to you it helped because when you put yourself into a situation mentally that you’ve already been through then you can learn how to control yourself better because you’ve already seen it before. Our coaches have put that into our brains before and I’ve taken it and run with it. I really believe it works.”

The calmness has manifested itself clearly, Mabrey is Tennessee’s go-to arm when in a jam. Entering this weekend’s series with Alabama, Mabrey has made five appearances in SEC games. He got a clean inning in only one of those.

Mabrey hasn’t just improved his breathing and mental steadiness, it’s become a serious strength.

Roberts credits Mabrey being better in big moments due to the other major mental growth — his confidence — as well as that breathing.

“Confidence is a big one for Will,” Roberts said. “He’ll text me and be like ‘I got ’em didn’t I?’. He knows he’s going to get them. He’s really confident, which is good.”

Mabrey acknowledges that adding the new pitch has “a lot” to do with his increased confidence, but so has improving his breathing.

“It’s very important to have that breathing down because it literally changes everything for me,” Mabrey said. “The maturity level. Everything has changed since I’ve learned how to breathe.”

The results speak for themselves. Like Roberts at Tech in 2018, Mabrey is Tennessee’s most used bullpen pitcher to date. The junior has a 2-0 record and 1.25 ERA in 21.2 innings pitched. Mabrey has 30 strikeouts to just two walks on the season and hasn’t offered a free pass in conference play.

Mabrey is one of the best relief pitchers in the conference and has been an integral part of No. 1 Tennessee’s 31-2 start to the season. 

His development is crucial in Tennessee’s path back to Omaha, and it might have him fulfilling the promise he made to Joshua sooner than expected.

Ryan Schumpert is a senior at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since the moment he stepped on campus. He just completed a three-year stint with the Daily Beacon, the last two of which as the Sports Editor. Ryan also spent last three years at Volquest providing strong Tennessee baseball coverage of Tony Vitello's resurgent program. While the bulk of Ryan's responsibilities involved beat coverage and writing, he also recorded podcasts for both the Beacon and Volquest. Did we leave out the part about Ryan interning for the Smokies? Ryan's work ethic, versatility, and strong writing skills are but three of the reasons why Vol Nation will be hearing from Ryan for years to come.