Tennessee catcher Evan Russell missed the Vols’ NCAA Tournament opening win over Alabama State due to sickness, according to fifth-year head coach Tony Vitello.
“We’ll give it some time to figure out what’s going on because I have to get with Dr. (Chris) Klenck, but obviously Evan Russell was not here,” Vitello said postgame. “He was sick this morning. I got a message from him.”
Tennessee announced that Russell would be unavailable just over 60 minutes before first pitch but didn’t announce a reason leading to speculation. The ESPN announcers for the Oklahoma State versus Missouri State matchup reported unsubstantiated rumors that Russell tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, suspending him from the tournament.
Ridiculous that this was actually said on ESPN tonight. pic.twitter.com/UfCMWqgNOi
— Ryan Schumpert (@rschump00) June 4, 2022
“They lost their starting catcher,” play-by-play announcer Lowell Galindo said.
“It was pretty crazy, failed a drug test so Evan Russell is suspended for the rest of the season, so Tennessee is going to have the whole rest of the team tested tomorrow, or the NCAA is. So it’s going to be interesting to see if that’s just a one player thing or throughout that whole entire program. Performance enhancing drugs is what it was said,” former Arkansas outfielder and ESPN color commentator Troy Eklund said.
The statements are riddled with inaccuracies.
Vitello’s statement denies the accusation as do Tennessee’s actions. Russell is on Tennessee’s 27-man active roster this weekend. These rosters are submitted roughly 30-90 minutes before the start of a weekend series — or tournament in this case.
More From RTI: What Tony Vitello Said About Evan Russell’s Absence
Tennessee was aware Russell wouldn’t be available for Friday night when they submitted their active roster. Emergency catchers Ryan Miller and Nathan Smith were not active for the Knoxville Regional, giving the Vols just Charlie Taylor and a banged up Jared Dickey as its active catchers while Russell is unavailable.
There has been no substantial reporting that the NCAA plans to drug test Tennessee, as Eklund indicated, or that link Russell to testing positive for PEDs.
“Evan Russell’s absence last night had nothing to do with any violation of team, NCAA or SEC rules. We have been in contact with ESPN and they are aware of the situation regarding last nights comments made on their broadcast. ESPN is handling the situation and we are expecting a public apology from them later today,” a Tennessee spokesperson said in a statement Saturday morning.
The announcers later relayed Vitello’s message that Russell was sick adding “so there are reports and speculation out on what the actual issue is but per the head coach in his postgame press conference ‘sick’. We know this, did not play against Alabama State.”
Eklund apologized for his false reporting during the second inning of Missouri State versus Grand Canyon’s matchup Saturday afternoon.
Here is the video of Eklund’s apology. pic.twitter.com/pRTDzz6fYg
— Rocky Top Insider (@rockytopinsider) June 4, 2022
Vitello didn’t provide a definitive answer on the Vols’ starting catcher’s availability against Campbell.
Evan Russell’s father — Jason — made a Facebook post addressing Evan’s absence and his sister Madeline tweeted a screenshot of the message Friday night.
— madeline russell-jones (@mrena_russell) June 4, 2022
Jason tweeted another update early Saturday morning, saying that Evan will go through physical/examination ahead of the Campbell game.
Evan will an evaluation/physical with the Doctor this morning. He hasn’t failed any type of test or anything.He had a health issue arise that kept from from playing Yesterday. This is standard testing to be done. Evan will most likely be available today. God bless !! #Blessed
— Jason Russell (@jrussellsh4) June 4, 2022
Russell will be available and is expected to play for Tennessee in its second matchup of the tournament against Campbell, sources told RTI Saturday morning.
Tennessee returns to Lindsey Nelson Stadium at 7 p.m. ET Saturday against three-seed Campbell. The winner advances to the Knoxville Regional championship while the loser will face the winner of Saturday afternoon’s matchup between No. 2 Georgia Tech and No. 4 Alabama State.
SEC Pitcher of the Year Chase Dollander is starting for Tennessee against the Fighting Camels.
They should be fired now. No ifs, ands or buts. It’s one thing to pass on unsubstantiated rumors in your personal life. But no way is this kosher on a national broadcast!
Completely agree!! ESPN is so biased against anything Tennessee,cue Heisman campaign against Peyton!
Incredible jerks! ESPN is a joke and one of the primary reasons people hate the media. I would file suit against these classless goobers. So he works for J. B. Hunt Trucking Co. Will see how that turns out.