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VOL. 45 | NO. 23 | Friday, June 4, 2021

Everything’s falling into place for No. 3 Vols

And a lifelong Vol fan’s twist of fate gives him a key role in postseason

By Rhiannon Potkey

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Will Heflin didn’t expect to be playing for the University of Tennessee baseball team this season.

Heflin figured he would either be working a job in logistics or pursuing a professional baseball career.

But an injury and the COVID-19 pandemic altered Heflin’s plans, and he couldn’t be happier.

The senior pitcher has emerged as a weekend starter for a Vols team that won its first SEC Eastern Division title since 1997 and reached the championship game of the SEC Tournament for the first time since 1995.

The Vols didn’t win the tournament title, losing to Arkansas. UT (45-16) finished second to Arkansas (46-10) in the regular-season title chase as well.

Tennessee earned the No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and will host Wright State (35-11), Liberty (39-14) and Duke (32-20) this weekend at Lindsey Nelson Stadium, beginning Friday.

Heflin started the season in the bullpen for the Vols, but injuries gave the left-hander an opportunity to start in early March. He secured a full-time role after the strong performance on short notice against Georgia State, giving up just one earned run in 7.0 innings.

“I have just gone out there every time and tried to get better at it and learn as I go,’’ says Heflin, a Morristown West High graduate. “It has been really fun. I give teams a different look being a left-hander. And being experienced, I try to bring a calming presence to the team whenever I am out there.”

Heflin arrived at UT as a two-way player. During his freshman season, his RBI single helped the Vols beat Arkansas. Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello was an assistant for the Razorbacks at the time and “hated him because he beat us.”

But Vitello’s opinion changed once he joined forces with the 5-foot-11, 175-pound Heflin at UT a few months later in 2017.

Injuries have pushed UT senior pitcher Will Heflin into a weekend starter role.

-- Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

They’ve formed a tight bond, and Vitello has appreciated Heflin’s athleticism, leadership and ability to fill any role needed for the team’s success.

“Some of these guys had to go through tough times and were asked to do a ton of things outside of their routine and I think it made them stronger and I think it made them more able to handle any circumstances thrown at them,” Vitello says. “Whatever the combination is, Will has developed into a phenomenal representative of the program but also a guy you can trust with any game.”

Heflin tore the ACL in his left knee during the fall of 2019 while fielding a bunt during practice.

He had surgery and began aggressively rehabbing to get back in time for the 2020 season.

Heflin was cleared to throw bullpens by February, and was two weeks away from returning to game action when the remainder of the 2020 season was canceled because of COVID.

“It was actually kind of a blessing in disguise,” Heflin acknowledges. “I got time to basically slow down and take a breath on my knee because I had pushed it so hard trying to get strength back. I really never took time to get my swelling down and was still struggling with my range of motion.”

Heflin finished his bachelor’s degree in supply chain management in three years and considered leaving UT to pursue a professional career after having some success in the prestigious Cape Cod League during the summer of 2019.

But the pandemic, his knee injury, a truncated MLB draft and a bad job market convinced Heflin to return to the Vols while working on a master’s degree in recreation and sport management.

UT’s Will Heflin overcame a torn ACL to help the Vols to a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

-- Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

“The stars all kind of aligned for me to give me this shot,” Heflin says. “We have a good thing rolling here and I didn’t want to give up on that.”

Heflin’s veteran status in the UT clubhouse became even more pronounced after he got married last fall. Heflin met his wife, Erika, at UT.

“She is a rock star, and my parents were like, ‘You don’t want to mess this one up.’ I was like, ‘You know, you are right,’ and we went ahead and tied the knot,” Heflin says. “The freshmen on our team are nowhere near that point in their lives, but I am still just as immature as anyone else. I just happen to be more mature in one aspect of my life.”

Heflin is already adept in at least one domestic duty.

He has become known as “Chef” by the team, a play on his last name combined with the culinary skills that he displays when teammates drop by for meals.

“Being in college and the first time on my own, I got into nutrition and trying to be healthy and started out cooking very basic stuff,” Heflin points out. “I’ve tried to get a little more creative and I made different kinds of sliders a few weeks ago. It was like Philly cheese steak and Buffalo chicken sliders with King’s Hawaiian rolls, and they were so good.”

Heflin’s industriousness comes from his grandfather, Ken Logan, who faithfully attended all of his games in high school and has watched all of his games at UT.

“He came to Tennessee from Ohio with basically nothing and he went door to door selling vacuums when they were first becoming a big thing,” Heflin recalls. “He ended up running several restaurants and owning gas stations and later in life he ran a farm because that is what he loved to do. He is the hardest worker and one of the most inspiring wisdom-type guys I know. I really look up to my Pawpaw.”

Having grown up attending UT games, it’s been even more rewarding for Heflin to play a role in the program’s rebuilding process under Vitello.

He hopes the Vols can make a deep run in the NCAAs and leave a legacy that will sustain once he leaves to begin the next chapter of his life.

“The best part about it is the excitement that we have generated in Knoxville,” Heflin says. “When I first got here, any time we would go to one of the perennial powerhouses in the SEC that drew big crowds, that was the best environment we got to play in that year.

“Now that we are drawing fans and a lot of people are talking on Twitter, it makes you feel really good and really proud to be a part of it.”

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