‘They’ve taken it and run with it:’ Tennessee LF Evan Russell will clash with former travel teammates in College World Series
GERMANTOWN, Tenn. -- Terry Rooker had no idea. Then again, how could he have known?
"It's crazy," chuckled Rooker on Tuesday. "Really wild."
From 2009 to 2013, Rooker was the head coach of the Germantown Giants, a travel baseball club based out of Memphis, Tennessee.
His team consisted of 13 players, all in their young teens. The team remained together until players separated for high school sports. But those travel teams never quite lived up to the billing -- at least, not according to Rooker.
"I wouldn't say stacked," he said. "More like stacked with potential. For the level of talent there turned out to be, we didn’t win a lot of games.
“We won more than most teams,” he added later. “Just not every tournament we played.”
Each player has certainly won since, as 10 of the 13 became Division I athletes.
John Lyons played football for Air Force. Ben Glass recently wrapped up a similar career at Navy. Nathan McMeans just finished playing baseball for Tennessee Tech. Rooker’s youngest son, Josh, played at Memphis before transferring to The University of Tennessee for school.
Few see each other anymore. Some of the baseball players, said Rooker, "get together to throw bullpens during breaks."
But four of them -- Tennessee's Evan Russell, Mississippi State's Houston Harding, Vanderbilt's Hugh Fisher, and NC State's Terrell Tatum -- will meet again very soon.
When they do, it will be in a place they may have dreamed about when playing together: TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska.
The circumstances are quite different now, though.
When those four athletes step between the white lines in Omaha, they will no longer be wearing black Giants jerseys. Instead, they will be adversaries, donning the orange, maroon, gold and red of their respective teams.
Four former teammates. Four different programs. One fight for the College World Series title.
Too much talent, too little testosterone?
In the days leading up to Omaha, each player has proven a versatile weapon for his team. But, in those years before growth spurts, the circumstances were quite different.
"I knew they were all going to be really good players," Rooker said. "But the fact of the matter is, the team that has the most mature kids is the better team. A lot of those kids didn't hit maturity until eighth, ninth or 10th grade. A pre-pubescent kid and a post-pubescent kid are completely different."
“When we ran into teams with lots of hair on their legs… we had problems.”
As far as physical gifts, “Fisher was the only one that I had a pretty good inkling about early on,” Rooker added. “He was left-handed and had long arms and big feet, so you just knew he was a big kid with a lot of arm strength."
"The other three were very good players. Their development physically didn't come until later. Until they got into high school, I had no idea it was going to be at this level."
Early signs, funny sounds, a cool summer
Although he was good at that age, Russell was "a little raw," according to Rooker.
“But he was one of those kids that wanted to be great and worked his tail off at it. Catch ground balls, hit, throw, that's all he wanted to do."
The current Tennessee senior also had quite a nickname, as did the other three.
"Big Country," Rooker chuckled when asked of Russell's moniker. "He was country strong, and that country twang certainly played a huge role in it. He'd say something, and I'd say, 'What are you talking about? Speak English!'"
"Come on, Coach," Evan would rib back. "That's just the way I talk."
But Russell's play was even smoother, as was his faith-based approach with teammates.
"He'd reach out to guys after they made a mistake, put his arm around them," Rooker said. "You could see the light of Christ shine through him, where he wanted to affect people in a positive manner. He didn't just want to be great himself. He wanted other people to be great with him."
None has been greater than Russell, or the three others he will meet again in Omaha. As mentioned, each of the other three had his own nickname, too.
Fisher, the Vanderbilt pitcher, was known as "Donk" because "he was as stubborn as one and gangly as one," said Rooker. "Kind of resembled a donkey when he ran."
Tatum, the NC State player who helped the Wolfpack upset No. 1 Arkansas on Sunday, was given a shorter moniker: “Lil' T."
"He weighed only about 90 pounds at the time,” said Rooker. “But he could run like a deer.”
And Houston Harding, the Mississippi State starter who gave the Bulldogs four innings against Notre Dame on Monday night?
"He came to me with 'Hooty,'" said Rooker. "I think it's universally short for Houston."
The fun didn't stop at nicknames. It went on road trips, too.
"That bunch in the dorms at Cooperstown when they were 12 was a week to remember," Rooker said. "And Evan Russell was the lead clown in that circus!"
One day during the tournament, Harding was dealing with some, er, sweat-based issues. So Russell decided to help.
"Evan gave him some medicated cooling powder that Hootie poured down the front of his pants," Rooker texted. "As we were walking to play, all Hooty could say was, 'It's like wintertime in my cup!'"
Whether those issues have persisted -- even to Harding's Super Regional start against the Irish -- remains to be seen.
But the talent is certainly there, especially in hindsight.
"'Wow,'" thought Rooker. "'They must have had a bad coach because we should have won a lot more games with that kind of talent!'"
Since then, the talent has continued in spades, with plenty of accolades to go with it.
Russell, of course, is the Tennessee senior who Tony Vitello has called a "cockroach" because "you can't kill him."
A Scott’s Hill product out of Lexington, Tennessee, Russell is also the only Vol in history to knock three home runs in multiple games. One of those occasions was against LSU on March 27 of this year, while the other situation ended in a game-winning grand-slam against Vanderbilt on April 17.
Fisher, a former Briarcrest Christian standout, made his return to the Vanderbilt bullpen this season after coming off Tommy John surgery. He has impressed both “athletically and academically,” according to Vandy coach Tim Corbin.
But during that title run in 2019?
“He had a 96, 97 fastball with a wipeout slider,” Rooker said. “Tremendous upside as he gets into pro ball.”
Tatum, meanwhile, has batted a consistent .324 for NC State this season. His “deer-like” speed has continued, too, as he is currently tied for the Wolfpack’s lead with 16 stolen bases this season. He could take the lead in Omaha.
As for Harding, the Mississippi native has been a steady starting presence through a packed 2021 campaign. He has made several appearances at a raucous Dudy Noble Field, and he owns the Itawamba Community College single season (95; 2018) and career (185) records for strikeouts, per Mississippi State.
“It’s just so cool to turn on the TV and see them not only on the team, but key members of their respective teams,” said Rooker. “It’s really cool.”
‘Taken it and run with it’
The first weekend in Omaha will feature Vanderbilt against Arizona, while Stanford will take on NC State. Meanwhile, Tennessee will play Virginia, and Texas will face Mississippi State.
If any of the four teams with a Germantown Giants connection comes out on top, then this year’s semifinals and finals could pit at least one pair of players against one another.
Will they remember all their good times, even in search of a title?
“100%,” said Rooker. “I think they would say it was some of the best times of their lives.”
Rooker added that he’s “tempted to jump in the car” for a drive to Omaha, but that, more than anything, he’s proud of how far each player has come.
“It makes me realize how fortunate I was not only to share that time with my own son and with kids like that,” he said. “Maybe I had a small part in instilling in them what it takes to succeed in that level, but it’s everything to do with God and their hard work on their part.
“God took care of the rest: they’ve taken it and run with it.”