Tennessee came back from Arkansas a desperate baseball team searching for answers. Before the Vols won seven straight games including weekend sweeps of Vanderbilt and Mississippi State, they were 5-10 in conference play having lost three straight series and were swept in two of their first five SEC series.
That’s where Director of Baseball Sports Performance (effectively the strength and conditioning coach) Quentin Eberhardt stepped in the day after the Vols returned home from Fayetteville.
“Oh yeah, he got onto us,” outfielder Griffin Merritt said. “We had, kinda went through a tough, tough couple of days back from Arkansas
“That was a lot of fun,” utility man Jared Dickey said sarcastically. “He got onto us a little bit.”
So, what did that Monday look like?
“Let’s just say I’m not a good runner and I had to run a lot,” Merritt said.
Saying the Monday after Arkansas was just about running or accountability would be a massive oversimplification of what happened and why it’s been so effective for Tennessee baseball.
It was just as much about team building and helping a group of players that includes an abundance of newcomers — both freshmen and transfers — bond together and truly become a team.
“I think it was good for us to come together as a team with a lot of emotions,” Dickey said. “A lot of people showing that they really care about this ballclub, and I think it brought us closer together than anyone could have ever possibly imagined.”
“I think it really brought us together and guys got some things off their chest and you know as a family, family is gonna fight a little bit and you’re not always gonna get along, but at the end of the day you love each other and I think that’s what resulted from that,” Merritt said.
Tennessee’s first time on the field following the afternoon with Eberhardt — or Q as those around the program call him — did not go well. Tennessee Tech handled the Vols with ease at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
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The loss helped the message sink in for the Vols and ever since they’ve responded well to adversity and won games in a myriad of ways including a pair of comeback victories. Just two weeks after head coach Tony Vitello questioned his team’s toughness, they’ve seemingly found it in playing for one another.
“We are going to fight for everyone out there,” second baseman Christian Moore said. “Coach V(itello), coach E(lander) and each other. I think that loss (Tennessee Tech) kind of put us in a different mindset and I think it is starting to click from there.”
Vitello is one of the biggest beneficiaries of Eberhardt’s day with the team and while he wasn’t directly involved he did have his hand in things. Vitello and Eberhardt have worked extremely close together since their first days in Knoxville with the head coach frequently heaping praise on his strength coach.
“He makes it easy on me,” Vitello said. “He’s the executioner and the bad guy. I get to kind of lay in the weeds although maybe I have something to do with it some times, but he’s as big into team chemistry and personal growth as he is muscle growth, which is really rare for that position. He took upon himself to put in a little extra work with those guys and also just kind of talk about how they need to approach things.”
Eberhardt was on Vitello’s staff for four years before leaving ahead of the 2022 season to be the Chicago Cubs head strength and conditioning coach. Eberhardt returned to Tennessee last June after just six months back in professional baseball.
A key cog in Tennessee’s baseball program, Eberhardt has been as important as any other offseason addition.
“Very, very close to the top for us – if not at the top,” Dickey said of where Eberhardt’s return ranks. “I think everybody on our staff and everyone on our team has done a good job of just coming in and doing what they are told to do and attacking each task with conviction.”
Tennessee baseball still has plenty of work to do if it wants to achieve its preseason goals and that starts this week by taking its recent success on the road. The Vols are 2-10 away from Lindsey Nelson Stadium this season ahead of next weekend’s trip to Georgia.
But one thing is for certain, Tennessee’s season is moving in the right direction and Quentin Eberhardt is a big reason why.
“Q gets us right. That is all I am going to say,” relief pitcher Camden Sewell said. “Q gets us where we need to be and in the right situation for what is coming.”