If you are a Tennessee baseball fan, Evan Russell is a name you immediately recognize. The grad student has been an integral part of the baseball team’s resurgence under coach Tony Vitello.
Russell made the move to catcher this year for the good of the team and the results have been as good or better than anyone could have hoped for. Russell, ranked as the no. 2 catcher in the state of Tennessee by Perfect Game coming out of high school made his first career start as catcher in this year’s season opener against Georgia State on February 18th.
He had little to say about himself and a lot to say about his teammates, so I was forced to asked specific personal questions to get to know this Vols’ star just a little bit better. His walk-up song is by Kanya West for those of a different generation, like me, who know little or nothing about today’s music scene. His favorite movie is Shawshank Redemption, but he also enjoys sports movies as well. He enjoys Mexican food, but Russell told me that a nice steak is also a great choice for a post-game meal.
Evan mostly wanted to talk about his teammates, but I was able to get him to talk about his transition back to catcher this season. Russell started his first game as catcher in this year’s season opener against Georgia State on February 18th. “I think the transition has gone pretty decent, my body has been holding up pretty well and we keep winning games, as long as we keep doing that, the transition has been a good one.”
Russell has had a stellar season behind the plate posting a .996 fielding percentage. He has only been charged with two errors all season but that isn’t good enough for Russell who says the two errors charged to his ledger doesn’t sit well with him. “That stat kind of rubs me the wrong way because I was too close to the hitter, it has nothing to do with throwing errors or anything like that. I could kick myself for making those mistakes.
When asked why he chose to attend Tennessee, Russell says it was always his first choice. “I’m from West Tennessee so I was always a Tennessee fan, and my first choice was to play at Tennessee. Coach Dave Serrano was the coach before Coach Vitello and he reached out to me. This was the best fit for me when it came to in state tuition and luckily, I got to see Coach Vitello come in and I got some playing time with him as well.”
Russell has high praise for his coach who he says wants to win more than anyone. “He probably has more passion than anybody on our team. He comes to the field every day with lots of energy ready to go. I’ve talked to players on other teams, and some tell me that a lot of the time they don’t even see their head coach during practice. The way Coach Vitello goes about his business, the relationship he has with his players makes us want to win. He wants to win as much as anyone.”
And win is what these Vols have done. The Vols boast a 45-7 record which includes a 22-5 conference mark that has been good enough to capture the 2022 SEC Crown. Winning the conference title, their fourth outright championship in program history, Russell says, was a team goal from the very beginning. “Last year was pretty cool, getting to twenty conference wins and winning the East, it was kind of a big deal, because we haven’t done it in a long time. This year, the mentality was kind of different. Winning the overall conference championship was definitely one of the goals we had as a team, it was never something I ever expected to do my first year.
On why this team has enjoyed so much success, Russell says it’s a simple formula. “I think it’s the perfect balance between leadership and young talent. You know Luc Lipcius, Redmond Walsh and myself aren’t the most talented guys to ever come through Tennessee but we’ve been a part of some winning teams so we know what works and what doesn’t. We’ve been able to help the younger kids adapt, helping them to learn how to go about their business. If everyone does their job, then the team should succeed. Coming into the season, I knew our pitching staff was going to be really good. Over the five years that I’ve been here, I knew this was going to be the best staff that I’ve been a part of or been able to watch. They’ve been able to carry us in some big games this season.”
It was nice to learn more about Evan than I had ever known before but all Evan cares about right now is winning. A Tennessee guy with a passion to succeed, Russell will long be remembered as a player who was willing to do whatever it took to help his team accomplish their goals.
Who knows what this team will accomplish before the curtain falls on the 2022 campaign but one thing is for sure, the unselfish leadership of players like Evan Russell will not be forgotten by his teammates, coaches or the Vol fans. However, players like Evan Russell aren’t satisfied just yet. They want a return trip to Omaha, anything less than that simply isn’t enough. And if attitude, talent, and leadership have anything to do with it, they might just get their chance to finish what they started last year.