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Unheralded, Veteran Vols Propel Tennessee Baseball To Latest Regional Win

Photo By Kate Luffman/Tennessee Athletics

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The 2024 Tennessee baseball team has stars galore in its lineup including five players with 17-plus home runs this season. Despite an unconventional approach to the pitching staff, the Vols have a handful of highly effective pitchers that could be early draft picks.

But it was the unheralded and oft-maligned veterans that made Tennessee’s sweep through the Knoxville Regional and its 12-3 victory over Southern Miss on Sunday night look as easy as it was.

Zander Sechrist was a career midweek pitcher entering this season and even when he opened the year as a weekend starter for Tennessee, there was a prevailing thought that he was a place holder before younger, more talented arms developed into the role. While Sechrist isn’t one of Tennessee’s three most effective pitchers in its peculiar pitching structure, he’s undoubtedly a reliable and effective left-handed arm in pitching coach Frank Anderson’s arsenal.

The quirky senior proved he’s a team favorite because of his extreme toughness and competitiveness in addition to his light hearted humor against the Golden Eagles. Sechrist spent minutes on the ground when a 105 MPH Davis Gillespie liner struck him on the outside of his left knee to lead off the fourth inning.

The senior not only stayed in the game but worked out of the inning unscathed. Sechrist allowed three unearned runs on an evening his defense did him few favors but his 4.2 inning outing once against put Tennessee in a solid spot.

“I think it just shows what type of teammate he is. He’s a tough guy,” catcher Cal Stark said. “He’s going to go out there and compete. You know whenever something like that doesn’t go his way, he’s going to have everyone one of our backs.”

“He’s a tough kid in his own way,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said. “He’s the definition of a quirky lefty, a lovable kid and a great teammate. Somehow, it’s kind of odd how he gets out there and is as much of a competitor as Hunter Ensley and Cal Stark.”

Few Tennessee players have faced more criticism than Stark in recent years. The Vols’ backstop continued his bounce back season with one of his best weekends at the plate, reaching base in seven-of-14 plate appearances and hitting three home runs over the weekend.

More From RTI: Everything Tony Vitello Said After Tennessee Won The Knoxville Regional

His fifth inning solo shot gave Tennessee the lead against Southern Miss and his three-run ninth inning shot was the exclamation point on a once tight game that had turned into a route.

“We could dissect why he’s gotten better offensively or why he’s gotten better over the course of four years, but I think they all fall under the umbrella of he meets challenges head on,” Vitello said.

The disdain Tennessee center fielder Hunter Ensley faced as recently as a month ago was more ridiculous than any others faced. One of the Vols’ top hitters on a College World Series team a season ago, Ensley struggled at the plate for much of the season while playing stout defense in center field.

Ensley was hitting .238 entering Tennessee’s series final at Florida on May 3. In 17 games since then, he’s hitting .393 with a .534 on-base percentage, three home runs, seven doubles and 18 RBIs.

“I’m as much for competition as anybody, but when you do have experience and we know truly what you can do in games, it does give you an edge,” Vitello said on his trust in Ensley. “Based off what he did for us last year in so many different situations, you can’t erase that. … We kind of pay attention to certain things that are just always there. Whether it be taking charge in the outfield, being able to be one of the better center fielders in the country, defensively, being an aggressive and really good baserunner and being a fighter at the plate.”

The redshirt junior center fielder is now hitting .285 on the season after recording five hits and reaching base nine times over the weekend.

Tennessee’s does have and has had plenty of elite talents under Vitello. Those guys are a big reason why Tennessee is back in the super regionals for a fourth straight season. But whether it be Will Heflin and Pete Derkay or Sechrist, Stark and Ensley— unheralded veterans always find a way to make a major impact on Vitello’s squads.

The trio of seniors are playing their best baseball of the season for Tennessee right now and that’s just making the top-seeded Vols look all the scarier. Their performances made a regional a drama free weekend, something you don’t often see.

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