Evan Russell took an unconventional route from West Tennessee to Knoxville.
It consisted of a journey through Oklahoma.
Russell was recently named the most valuable player as Team Tennessee won the Junior Sunbelt National Championship with a 5-0 victory over Mississippi in McAlester, Okla.
Three days later, Russell verbally committed to the University of Tennessee.
“Evan went out there and was hotter than a firecracker in the first half of the tournament,” Team Tennessee coach Chris Parker said. “A lot of schools noticed.”
Team Tennessee consists of 20 of the state’s top rising underclassmen.
Russell — a utility player who led Scotts Hill High School to the Class A state title last month — didn’t have any scholarship offers entering the tournament, a six-day event consisting of teams from 10 states and Ontario, Canada.
“I was being recruited by some people, but I had no actual offers on the table,” Russell said. “Everything happened fast. It was like the second day (when) I got a call from Tennessee. That night, I got a call from MTSU. I was pretty confident after Tennessee called that they were going to offer me.”
Russell became the 18th player on the Team Tennessee roster — which consisted of one rising sophomore, four juniors and 15 seniors — to commit and the fourth future Volunteer. Seven of those are Vanderbilt University commits.
“We’ve had some other talented teams,” Parker said. “We just had more kids committed than in years past. I had a lot of discussions (with scouts) like, ‘I wish I had seen that guy earlier.’ When we get done, 80, 90 or sometimes 100 percent of our kids are committed.”
Said Russell: “A big part of our success was that we had so many players committed. They didn’t have to worry about failure. It kind of made me nervous. I was more worried about proving to my teammates that I could play with them and do my part.”
The players are aware of the college and professional scouts in attendance.
“Everywhere you look, there’s a scout sitting there with a stopwatch,” Russell said.
Pope John Paul II High rising senior pitcher Mason Hickman, who was the pitching most valuable player in this year’s Junior Sunbelt, had a similar experience while competing with Team Tennessee last summer.
“It was before one of our games … I was on the phone with Scott Brown (the Vanderbilt pitching coach),” Hickman said. “He mentioned that he thought I’d be a great fit at Vanderbilt. After talking to him, I thought — pretty much right there — that it would be the place for me.
“I went on my visit (days after returning from Oklahoma) and talked to coach (Tim) Corbin, who is the best coach on the planet. That sealed it for me.”
Among the college programs represented at the Junior Sunbelt this season were Vanderbilt, MTSU, Tennessee, Kansas State, Memphis and Arkansas.
Parker has led the Tennessee contingent to a 60-10 record over the last seven years. Tennessee was in the championship game for the sixth time over that span, also winning the tournament in 2011 and 2012 as well and finishing as the runner-up in 2010, 2014 and 2015.
“We’re the only team that hangs our state flag beside our dugout,” Hickman said. “That relates back to the state pride we take in trying to win it for Tennessee. It’s 20 players who really don’t know each other, but you look at the past guys, like (Boston Red Sox outfielder) Mookie Betts, wishing us luck. That draws success to us, and Chris Parker does a great job of not only getting good kids but (players) who bond together and create team chemistry. It’s the most fun of week of baseball I have the whole year.”
Said Parker: “We came back and beat Arizona (an 8-7 victory), and I didn’t know what to say and just said, ‘I’m so proud to be from Tennessee right now.’ They all started yelling. They take pictures with the flag. It’s a heartwarming experience.”
Reach Craig Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @CHTennessean.
Player, Grade, Position, High School (College commitment)
David Bates, Sr., P, Christ Presbyterian Academy (Vanderbilt)
Drew Benefield, Jr., SS, Siegel (Louisville)
Ben Brooks, Sr., SS, Pope John Paul II (Memphis)
Corbin Brooksbank, Sr., P/OF, McCallie (Vanderbilt)
Aaron Brown, Sr., P, Mt. Juliet (Mississippi State)
Philip Clarke, Sr., C, Christ Presbyterian Academy (Vanderbilt)
Tyler Gentry, Sr., P/OF, Arlington (Louisiana Tech)
Hunter Goodman, Jr., C, Arlington
Mason Hickman, Sr., P, Pope John Paul II (Vanderbilt)
Steven Jennings, Sr., P/SS, DeKalb County (Ole Miss)
Tate Kolwcyk, Jr., SS, Arlington (Vanderbilt)
Hayden Leatherwood, Sr., LF, Christian Brothers (Vanderbilt)
Chris McElvain, Soph., P, Summit (Vanderbilt)
Gunnar Ricketts, Sr., OF, Baylor (Tennessee)
Evan Russell, Sr., Utility, Scotts Hill (Tennessee)
Brandon Trammell, Sr., 3B/P, Bearden (Tennessee)
Peyton Wiggington, Sr., P, Page (MTSU)
Bailey Wimberley, Sr., P/SS, First Assembly Christian School (Memphis)
Corey Wilson, Jr., P/INF, Houston
Nick Woods, Sr., P/SS, East Hamilton (Tennessee)