Dan Fleser: Ensley's Daring Heroics Were A Highlight Of Vols Win Over UNC

  • Monday, June 17, 2024
  • Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser

Hunter Ensley drove a hard bargain for the sake of catching a fly ball.

Tennessee’s center fielder ran smack dab into the outfield fence at Charles Schwab Field to complete an over-the-shoulder grab in the second inning and prevent an extra-base base hit by North Carolina’s Anthony Donofrio. Upon contact, Ensley’s face – or was it his shoulder? - left a mark in the fence’s padding. The force of the collision sent him tumbling backward to the ground. But he popped up immediately thereafter with the baseball safe and secure in his glove.

“I’m willing to run into a wall for an out,” Ensley said. “I’ll take that trade any day.”

The transaction was arguably the most compelling act of the Vols’ 6-1 College World Series victory over the Tar Heels. Tennessee (57-12) advanced to within a victory of the concluding best-of-three championship series.

While Kavares Tears’ three-run homer in the fourth was the game’s decisive blow and worthy of its own acclaim, nobody got hurt in the making of that highlight. Ensley felt the physical toll in his right leg almost immediately after the trade and was out of the game by the fifth inning.

Pitcher Drew Beam watched Ensley’s catch from the infield and had to collect his jaw from the ground.

“I was dumbfounded,” he said.

In the dugout, UT’s Tony Vitello filed the feat in a mental folder that already was bulging with examples of Ensley’s competitiveness.

“He’s not scared,” the head coach said. “He’s a fighter.”

Much of what followed Ensley’s hard-to-watch moment was a sight to behold of a different, less dramatic nature. Beam already was on the proverbial beam, throwing just 21 pitches through the first two innings. An interminable delay in the bottom of the fifth inning to replace a heat-exhausted umpire got to the right-hander before the Tar Heels. There was so much down time that Beam went out to the bullpen and threw some pitches.

“The time break was unfortunate,” he said. “But it is just what happens.”

Beam departed in the sixth but not before setting a different pitching tone than Friday’s messy 12-11 comeback against Florida State. In that game, Vols pitchers allowed 13 hits, issued nine walks and hit a batter. Against North Carolina, Beam and two relievers issued four walks and allowed five hits.

“He was really good,” North Carolina coach Scott Forbes said of Beam, “and he didn’t give us any mistakes. I thought him and Connell were very good.”

Reliever Kirby Connell and first baseman Blake Burke collaborated on a key defensive play to help thwart a North Carolina scoring threat in the sixth. Connell started by picking off Donofrio at first. Burke had the patience to hold a base runner at third base and then make an accurate throw to second to get the sliding Donofrio.

In the ninth, Burke was part of another fielding gem. Second baseman Christian Moore got the play started with a great scoop of a grounder and a difficult throw across his body. Burke shifted his foot on the first-base bag to accommodate an awkward stretch for Moore’s throw and held it there to get the out.

“It was a pretty dang good play,” Vitello said.

After committing three errors against Florida State, the Vols were flawless against North Carolina. The team that’s been winning with hitting added equal measures of pitching and defense to its Sunday script. The Vols will take that any day.

“I think it just shows how versatile we are,” Tears said. “And it also shows our will to win.”

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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since 1988. He is a member of the Tennessee Sportswriters and the U.S. Basketball Writers Halls of Fame. He can be reached at danfleser3@gmail.com.

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