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Former Vandy baseball star recalls 2019 postseason run

10 days ago
SEC Staff
Photo: SEC Staff

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Ethan Paul was a four-year standout (2016-19) for the Commodores, helping the program to four consecutive NCAA Tournaments including the 2019 College World Series title. The Bellevue, Washington, native finished his career as Vanderbilt's all-time leader in doubles (64). He was selected in the ninth round of the 2019 MLB Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Here, Paul reflects on what the College World Series experience meant to him:

A breath. Something simple that I could grasp in that moment.

A year later, the memory remains so vivid. I was standing at the top of the dugout stairs as my name was called during introductions. It was minutes before our first College World Series game. The view was unlike anything I had ever seen.

The mid-afternoon sun beat down on perfectly trimmed grass, a packed stadium, the rest of the team standing proudly on the foul line. I inhaled deeply and jogged out to meet them.

With each stride, a new emotion.

Excited.

Four years of college baseball spent quietly eyeing this opportunity.

Nervous.

A bigger stage than we had ever experienced with college baseball's greatest prize in sight.

Prepared.

The countless hours put into this journey.

Grateful.

So few college athletes ever get to chase a national title.

As I approached the foul line, the weight of the moment hit me. This was about more than winning. I thought about all the players that had built the platform I now had the chance to uphold. Years, decades, lives were spent building our program. Each team before us adding bricks to the foundation that allowed us to be here.

With that resting on my shoulders, my body felt weightless. As I arrived at my teammates, I knew they felt the same.

That weightless feeling carried through the top of the first inning. I can't say I remember much of anything that happened while we were on defense. I can tell you the moment it all came back into focus.

The first pitch to Austin Martin in the bottom half. With one swing, we were ahead 1-0 and the game instantly slowed down. That's Austin. He's freakishly talented but he's a better competitor. I don't think there is ever a moment too big for him. He's just born to hit a baseball. He hit two home runs that day as we went on to beat an excellent Louisville team to start our run.

Sitting here today hoping the minor league season resumes soon, it's tough knowing eight teams just missed that experience. For us, Omaha was so special because it brought our college careers full circle. Everything we were told countless times by our coaches came to fruition over that season and specifically those two weeks. The experience brings out the best in each program, each team and each player.

I can't help but think how I would look back on my college experience had the pandemic struck last year and canceled our season. I can't help but feel deeply for what that team destined to win the national championship missed. Though sitting here today, I do know that it was more about the journey than the outcome. And, it was a special journey.

The quest for a national championship is fairly straightforward. The eight most successful teams, together at the end of the season, all hoping to be the last one standing. As coach Corbin continually preached, "The best team won't win this tournament. The team that plays the best will."

That was a lesson we learned the year prior in our super regional matchup against Mississippi State. We felt like we were the better team. They were playing the best. They had overcome significant early season adversity and caught fire over the weeks leading up our series.

I can still remember that super regional final game so vividly. It was the bottom of the ninth and my fifth at-bat. The two guys before me had started the rally. Pat DeMarco smashed a solo shot to give us life before Harrison Ray fought off an 0-2 pitch for a single and set the table for a memorable moment.

As I stepped into the box for that fifth at bat, the scoreboard read 0-for-3 with two strikeouts. I didn't care what the scoreboard said. I was confident I was going to get a pitch to hit. The walk to the plate was the same as every time before. My mind was clear and my breathing steady.

At 2-1, the pitcher threw a slider down and in. I didn't miss. The eruption from the crowd when the ball cleared the wall is something I'll never forget. A game-tying home run in a super regional matchup.

Unfortunately, that swing only tied the game. Though we would lose the series two innings later, the mood in the clubhouse that night was more of a group that realized what it was going to take to win, rather than one that got beat.

That super regional taught us more than just that the team playing the best will win. Looking back, it was probably the defining moment in what was to come for us. It taught us how to be the best team playing the best.

Regardless, special moments occurred all throughout that series. JJ Bleday hit a walk-off home run the night before. He was the offensive heart of our championship team the following year. It's amazing what happens when the most talented player on the field is also a great leader.

There were periods of the 2019 season when JJ carried us on his shoulders. More impressive is that he never pressed when opposing teams pitched around him. He never acted like he needed to do it all for us to win. His bat took significant pressure off our offense but more importantly his trust instilled a deep sense of confidence that allowed us to beat the opposing team from any spot in our lineup. So many different guys came up big that year, but JJ was a centerpiece.

Looking back on another huge moment in Omaha is that it involved the same cast of characters.

We were down one in the top of the ninth against Louisville in the national semifinal. Their starting pitcher was cruising - though he pitched around JJ with one out and walked him. Just like the year before, the scoreboard read 0-for-3 with two strikeouts. Just like the year before, I knew I was going to get a pitch to hit. The rest was simple, just compete.

He fell behind 2-0 and then left a fastball out over the plate. I hit a slicing line drive down the right field line, only fair by inches. What was remarkable was that Corbin sent JJ all the way from first. The relay short-hopped the catcher and he couldn't pick it. It was an aggressive call that showed Corbin's trust in his players.

Two batters later, Pat pulled a double down the left field line and I scored the go-ahead run. Again, the roar in the stadium after I scored was unforgettable.

Just like the super regional a year prior, we were the visiting team. And, similar to that series, Tyler Brown pitched the final inning. Just a freshman the previous year, he was put in a rugged situation to try and salvage a season. Rightfully, he was back in another game-ending spot.

There is trust in a teammate, and then there is the unbreakable belief in someone's ability to get it done. That was Tyler to all of us. Every single time he took the mound that season, a new level of confidence permeated our team. He commanded the moment again, punching out two on his way to notching his program record 17th save.

The final out however was the moment I knew we were the best team playing the best. With the tying run at second, Tyler jammed the Louisville hitter who lofted a ball into no-man's land between the mound and Harrison Ray. I immediately thought he was going to catch it, but as the ball floated through the air, I quickly realized how tough the play was going to be. Any mistake would cost us.

Dive and miss it? Tie game.

But Harrison's athleticism prevailed and he made a special play when it mattered most. He got a perfect break on the ball, dove and caught it just inches off the grass. It was an inning indicative of our team.

Almost every player on the field contributed and sent us off to the national championship series.

In Omaha, nothing really goes smoothly. Ups and downs are a guarantee. As a good example of this, we dropped the first game to a red-hot Michigan team. Assuredly, we didn't panic. It was a scenario we had seen before. We knew we had to win twice and we had Kumar Rocker on the mound for Game 2. He's as talented of a pitcher as there is in college baseball.

We had been in the same lose-and-go-home situation in our super regional against Duke and Kumar had thrown a 19-strikeout no-hitter to lead us to victory.

Against Michigan, he delivered another gem and set up that illustrious Game 3 situation. We took an early lead in that game and closed it out to set off a celebration I'll remember forever.

Some memories fade with time. Not Omaha.

For myself and the rest of the guys I shared the field with, we will remember those experiences forever. For many, the final win was plenty. But for our senior class, there was something greater.

We fulfilled our desire to bring the program full circle. A chance to leave the program on a positive note, on the other side of painful depths. Inside the celebration, seeing Teddy and Susan Everett share that moment with our team will always be my strongest recollection.

Donny was the heartbeat of our class - he was a driving force throughout our entire journey in the program.

As my thoughts drift back to the present, I can't help but think of something Corbin said to us often, "the game will always repay you. It just might not be on your watch."

While eight deserving teams will be without the experience this year, I find comfort that this game will indeed repay each of those players. It won't be today and it won't be in Omaha, but if there is one prevailing thought while reflecting on my experiences, it's that the game provides the experiences, not the setting.

The sport itself transcends one location or one event.

Fortunately, there will be future groups to step on that heavenly surface. As the world gathers itself and finds a way back to normalcy, so will college baseball.

And so will that special run for eight teams, all looking to capture the memories of winning it all.