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Tennessee baseball stars reflect on national title and careers with Vols at Championship Celebration

Tennessee’s baseball players were still on cloud nine on Tuesday night after clinching the program’s first national championship the night before with the win against Texas A&M in the College World Series decider. Many of the key contributors for the No. 1-seeded Vols have been a part of the team’s remarkable rise under Tony Vitello, who already had two SEC regular-season and tournament championships apiece and three trips to Omaha even before reaching the pinnacle of the sport on Monday night. Victory against the Aggies set off wild celebrations and the players were still soaking it all in during a parade and Championship Celebration in downtown Knoxville.

As part of the Celebration’s program in Market Square, five heroes for the Vols joined John Wilkerson, the Voice of Tennessee Baseball, for brief question-and-answer sessions reflecting on moments from the 60-win season and thrilling run to a title and looking back on their careers on Rocky Top.

Here’s what Tennessee stars Hunter Ensley, Christian Moore, Zander Sechrist, Kirby Connell and Drew Beam said during the Tennessee Baseball Championship Celebration on Tuesday night.

Hunter Ensley and Blake Burke (Photo: Angelina Alcantar/Knoxville News Sentinel)

On being a Huntingdon, Tenn., native and seeing the crowd at the celebration:

“Pretty incredible. I grew up in this state, so really excited to see all the orange and white out here today.”

On winning the national title for the first time in program history:

“I said last night that being around this group in the fall, you knew it was going to be a special team. Just a lot of great different personalities on this team and really grateful to be a part of it and be a part of all these guys’s journeys. There’s going to be a lot of guys who go play pro ball. They’re going to do incredible and I’m really just grateful to play a part in their journey.”

On his wall-crashing catch in center field against North Carolina in the College World Series:

“Yeah, we can first blame Cal Stark on the pitch call. It all started with that. I think it was an 0-2 count. The wind was blowing out to left-center. There was a lefty up, so he hit pretty good. I knew he got it good enough, but yeah, I mean, I was at full speed and I knew I was eventually going to run into a wall. Dylan (Dreiling)’s pretty quiet over there in left field, so he doesn’t really ever let me know when I get close to the wall, so I just basically said eff it, let’s do it.”

On seeing the reaction to his catch and some changing Tennessee’s iconic sign to “I Will Run Through A Wall For Tennessee Today”:

“Yeah, I didn’t think it was anything too crazy until I got home and got lost in the social media world for a few hours, but yeah, it was pretty cool. It’s something I definitely pride myself in and definitely something I like to tell all the outfielders, as big for the team, is if a ball’s hit up in the air and it doesn’t go over the fence, it needs to be an out. And if not, we’ll die trying.”

On him leaving his eye-black on the outfield wall from his impact with it on the catch:

“Yeah, it only took me two games to get back out there, so that was something I definitely went for and looked at it, but it was pretty cool. Maybe we can paint a little eye-black over in left-center field in Lindsey Nelson Stadium. We’ll get with Coach V about that.”

On finishing the job and winning the national title:

“Yeah, we’ve been so close. A Tennessee guy, I grew up watching this program. Huge. On Saturdays growing up, I’m watching Tennessee football. Yeah, we’ve been so close the last few years, so really just grateful to be a part of it. The foundation was laid by this group of guys back here. Coach Vitello was the one who built it, and then everybody else. I could talk about all of them for hours, even Q (Director of Baseball Sports Performance Quentin Eberhardt), but yeah, it’s been great. Glad we could finally get it done for Coach Vitello and all these Tennessee fans out here.”

His thoughts on the reception and coming back to Knoxville with the national title trophy:

“Honestly, this is a great turnout. You guys always surprise me with what you do, so thank you guys for coming out tonight. It means everything to us that you guys could be here for us, and we fought hard for you guys out in Omaha.”

How a Brooklyn native ended up at Tennessee:

“Really, you know, I really didn’t know Tennessee was a thing during my recruiting process, so when I came down here and toured, it was definitely a beautiful place and I’m so glad I chose this school, and Coach V had a dream in me.”

(Photo: Angelina Alcantar/Knoxville News Sentinel)

On seeing his hard work pay off as he improved through his career with the Vols:

“Definitely just over the course of my three years, just trying to develop into a leader and just to help this team win a national championship, and understanding that it’s a bunch of college guys and we all need to pull kind of on that same string, so understanding that if I lead by example, the younger guys would follow.”

On being a part of setting so many team and individual Tennessee records:

“I mean, I think my freshman year (in 2022), it was real insane because I didn’t know anything about it. So just having that year, then doing it again this year, I never thought that we couldn’t do it again and break records, because this program and the guys we have here, everyone’s so talented. And like I said, when we’re pulling on the same string, good things can happen.”

On becoming just the second player ever to hit for the cycle in a College World Series game:

“Really to lead off the game there, I’m trying to set the tone. They hit a home run early, so I’m trying to get back. I’m not trying to hit a homer, it would have been cool, but just definitely trying to get on base and get a good swing on it. I hit the triple and from there I knew I was locked in.

“And really just trying to win and do everything to get on base for (Blake) Burke, Billy (Amick), the guys behind me. I guess I hit that homer and you saw Hunt kind of tell that I hit the cycle, and really I didn’t believe it. Then obviously we were still losing, so I had to lock back in, but it was definitely a really cool moment.”

On the rally against Florida State in the first CWS game:

“We always talk about it. We’re always one inning away, one swing away, so we know if we keep applying pressure and pressure and pressure, we’re going to score, and that’s kind of what happened right there. K.T. (Kavares Tears) kind of led it off and the train just kept going.”

On the strikeout to seal the championship on Monday night:

“That feeling of joy, I’ll probably never get again, just being able to hug my brothers and to be in that moment, it’s definitely a beautiful moment. I’m so glad I got to do it with this group of guys.”

Zander Sechrist and Kirby Connell (Photo: Angelina Alcantar/Knoxville News Sentinel)
(Naturally the two left-handers and close friends did a segment together, as they have done postgame press conferences in the past.)

On playing together for four years and winning the national title as seniors:

(CONNELL) “It’s awesome. To be able to be a part of this program for the last five years and get to spend four years with my best friend, it’s been truly amazing. Thanks to everybody who is up here on this stage, because we couldn’t have done it without them.”

(SECHRIST) “Yeah, I mean, this guy is my brother, a little mentor when I was a youngin. A little miscommunication with throwing partners, that’s how we became best friends, but it’s not just about this friendship. It’s about the friendship that I’ve created over four years here, and obviously to get to Omaha three times is just a blessing and finally to finish it up in ‘24 is awesome.”

On the progress Connell made throughout his career and his ability to pitch in so many games, including every game in the College World Series:

(SECHRIST) “Yeah, this guy’s got a robber arm. I mean, he’s unbelievable. I don’t know how he does it. He just goes to sleep after the game, so I don’t really know what he does mentally, but he just goes to sleep. I knew he was going to get the job done. I know we’re not guys that throw like Nate Snead over here, a hundred, and Marcus Phillips, 98. We’re not those guys. We’re just here to spot up and just get dudes out as quick as possible. When I came out and Snead came and Kirby came in, I knew the job was going to get done.”

On Sechrist pitching so well down the stretch of the season in so many high-stakes games:

(CONNELL) “Yeah, I think it shows just how much trust we had in this guy. For him to go out and throw in all the key moments and elimination games that we were in, for him to go out and throw like he did, it’s just truly amazing to watch, and I’m glad I got to be a part of it.”

On the final game at Lindsey Nelson Stadium against Evansville in the Super Regional and making their final home appearances for the Vols:

(SECHRIST) “Well, it’s just kind of an emotional rollercoaster there. I knew I came out after six (innings) and I knew I had a lot of pitches, and I respectfully went up to Coach V and I said, ‘One more,’ but there may have been a miscommunication of one more inning or one more batter, but I just wanted one more batter, because I felt like personally I just wanted to walk off that mound, especially in front of the raucous crowd we had – I mean, that environment was the most electric I think I’ve ever been in.

“And just to walk out and then see this man first, it’s enough to make a grown man cry there, but I didn’t shed a tear until you came out and I met you.”

(CONNELL) “Yeah, I didn’t think I was going to throw that game. Then Coach V sends me down in the eighth and then tells me start playing catch for the ninth, and I was like OK, at least I know I’ll at least get one batter. I got a guy out and I look up and Coach V is walking out and I’m like, ‘This is it. This is the last time I’ll walk off Lindsey Nelson Stadium.’ And to be able to do it in front of everybody there to support us was awesome.

“And then the first guy that I see is Zander, so I just truly loved it.”

On Connell wanting to ask Vitello if he could be the one to go out and take Sechrist out of his final home game:

(CONNELL) “Yeah, me and Chuck (Charlie Taylor) discussed it, and Cal (Stark). We wanted to go out, a little Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter, a little ‘Hey we want the lefty (motion).’ But you (Vitello) were too locked in on the game and I understand, so maybe next year. …

“Supposedly I think the NCAA is going to give us another year.”

(SECHRIST) “Oh, really?”

(CONNELL) “No, no.”

On being part of the rise of Tennessee baseball:

(SECHRIST) “It speaks to what this coaching staff has done, especially with Coach E (Josh Elander) recruiting, Coach Q (Quentin Eberhardt) in the weight room and Coach V at the helm and Coach A (Frank Anderson) as the pitching coach. It just tells you what they’ve done. Obviously a lot of people know the history of Tennessee baseball. We hadn’t been relevant since ‘05 before Coach V got here, so in ‘19 they make a Regional, but the cool thing about it is Kirby and I and lot of other kids up here, too, committed before Tennessee was like this nationally-ranked team, national all this, national all that.

“So I think it speaks to the culture that we’ve built here, and I can’t thank the coaching staff and Coach V enough.”

(CONNELL) “Yeah, you know, when I first came here, they made it to a Regional, and our next task was try to get to a Super Regional, try to get to Omaha. We end up making it in ‘21 and finally got to this year and a bunch of different personalities up here on the stage, so it took a lot for us to come up with one goal and our goal was to walk home champions, and that’s what we did.”

On dumping the water cooler on Vitello after the win on Monday night:

(SECHRIST) “We did.”

(CONNELL) “We did.”

(SECHRIST) “I said ‘You want to go grab the cooler? You want to go grab the cooler?’ It was perfect. He was getting interviewed and I was like, ‘You want to go grab the cooler?’ You were like, ‘Yeah.’”

(CONNELL) “Not going to lie, Q, we did have to grab the lightest one.”

(SECHRIST) “Yeah, we did.”

On enjoying the celebrations the past 24 hours:

(SECHRIST) “Just everything you dream of as a kid, playing in Omaha. I mean, all these players up here, they just want to get to Omaha. It was good to see (Dalton) Bargo go back home in front of his home crowd, so just for him to win it there is special and then in front of these group of guys and in front of all the fans that were able to go and then the millions and millions watching on TV. It was just unreal.”

(CONNELL) “It was an awesome experience just to go out there and win the thing. It was just awesome to be up here with all these guys. It took every single one of us to go out there and win. It took lots of work from everybody here and everybody that went all the way out to Omaha and all the people that were watching.”

(Photo: Angelina Alcantar/Knoxville News Sentinel)
On the being the one carrying the trophy on the flight back from Omaha:

“It’s been awesome. It’s what you dream of as a kid. I went to Omaha as a little kid and just watched. I wasn’t really a fan of any of the teams there, I was just there to be a little kid at a baseball game. Now I got to take (the trophy) on the flight, on the bus and just carry it around. Got to enjoy it on the field last night, and it’s just such a surreal feeling.”

On being a part of the last two teams and seeing the Vols take the final step to winning a title:

“It wouldn’t be possible without those teams before us. They kind of set the road for us to get here. They laid the culture. They taught me things, guys like Redmond Walsh and stuff just took me under their wing my freshman year, and I hope I’ve been able to pass that on to some of these younger guys and give some experience. So when we went there this year, it was just a lot easier and we got to bring that thing home.”

On being a consistent Saturday and Sunday starter in his Tennessee career:

“It’s been awesome. Coach V – I don’t where he’s at, right there – gave me an opportunity to come play baseball in the SEC and then gave me the opportunity to be a weekend starter. Yeah, whatever he told me I was going to do, I trusted him with that and we ran with it, and it’s worked out pretty well for us and I’m very grateful for that.”

On pitching how he did against North Carolina and Texas A&M in Omaha:

“Last year, first time there, it’s crazy. So many fans. Then this year it was a lot more easy. I got up there and I just got to really enjoy it a lot more. This team had my back, put some runs up for me and we got to win some games. It’s so cool being in that environment, but I love being back here in Lindsey Nelson and I’ll forever miss playing there.”

On walking off the mound during the win against Texas A&M on Sunday:

“I was just happy. I had a smile on my face. V came out and I was ready to go. I gave the ball off to Combs and he took care of business in his way, and it was just I had no regrets coming off that mound.”

On how enjoyable it was to see the different aspects of the team from pitching and defense to hitting deliver and win a title:

“It’s been cool. There’s been a lot of people asked to do a lot of different roles, whether it was a K.T. (Kavares) Tears jumping over to center field because Ensley ran into a wall and injured himself, and then K.T. making an amazing play, or guys getting different roles in the bullpen or in starting roles. It’s been really cool that everyone’s just filled the role that they were asked to, and that’s what led us to this place.”

What it’s meant to be from Tennessee (Murfreesboro) and help the Vols make history with a first title:

“I grew up bleeding orange, a Tennessee fan. Watched football every Saturday with my dad. Now I got to be a part of this for three years. It’s been super cool, especially being the first baseball team to bring home a national championship. I wasn’t born yet when we won football in ‘98, so it’s been really cool to bring a championship home, and then we’ll see football do it this fall.”

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