June 15, 2021

Heflin making most of surprisingly long Tennessee career

When people call you “Big Game Will” and your team loses a…

When people call you “Big Game Will” and your team loses a big game, it stings.

That’s the feeling Will Heflin had for much of the past week.

Heflin blamed himself — and erroneously so, according to his coaches and teammates — for coming up short in No. 2 Tennessee’s SEC Championship Game loss to No. 1 Arkansas on May 30 in Hoover, Ala.

That game was Heflin’s second start in four days, and he did a reasonable job containing arguably the most relentless offense in college baseball, especially considering the circumstances. He allowed four hits and three earned runs in 4.2 innings, giving the Vols a chance to win the game. But they didn’t win the game, so the Knoxville-area native blamed himself.

Nothing head coach Tony Vitello could say would change the way Heflin felt about the Vols losing a big game he started against Arkansas. Vitello’s actions helped, though. He didn’t hesitate to give the ball back to Big Game Will to start against Liberty in Sunday’s NCAA Tournament Knoxville Regional championship round.

Tennessee senior pitcher Will Heflin (Photo: Saul Young, Knoxville News Sentinel)

Heflin again earned his nickname, allowing only one run on four hits in 5.1 innings, striking out eight and walking only one. Tennessee needed him to be sharp, and he was, and he earned the win in a 3-1 game that sent the Vols to the Super Regional round.

“It all started with Will Heflin, who I think mistakenly felt he led us down last Sunday in the SEC championship game, when in reality, he was phenomenal for us then,” Vitello said Sunday night. “He was just as outstanding tonight. He’s been here, again, through thick and thin of the program and has seen it through. A special deal.”

Heflin never hesitates to point the finger at himself when he feels it’s deserved, but he had nothing to criticize about his Sunday start.

“Today was probably the best that my slider location was all year, and I leaned on that heavily,” the 5-foot-11 Knoxville-area native said. “I was able to keep that away from lefties pretty much the entire game. And some of their better hitters are left handed, so to keep them kind of at bay for a little while was good. You know, I really like pitching in big games, so the fact that the SEC Tournament ended in a loss was tough. You know, like Coach V said, I gave us a chance to win, but it wasn’t, you know, it wasn’t good enough. And I’m a competitor, and I’ll be the first one to admit that. But today was good enough.

“I was pretty determined all week. I kind of saw how it was lining up for me to potentially have a chance to either continue our season if we needed to beat somebody twice, or to just wrap this thing up. So to go out there and wrap this thing up was a pretty sweet feeling. And I really didn’t have any doubts heading into it.”

Heflin admitted feeling goosebumps as the Lindsey Nelson faithful gave him a standing ovation when he exited stage left for closer Sean Hunley in the sixth inning, but he said he felt compelled to contain those emotions for myriad relevant reasons.

“That standing ovation was awesome,” he said. “I didn’t want to show too much emotion because, one, the game wasn’t over, and two, our season is far from over. But it was a pretty cool moment, and, you know, hopefully serves as a little taste, because I want to feel that again. And you know, these fans, we’ve said it, we’ve said it kind of all year, once they kind of opened it up and let let people come, that the support has been great. And how could you not fall in love with this team? You know, you’ve got the wild man (Vitello) leading the charge, and you’ve got the wild man (Drew Gilbert) in centerfield. And then you’ve got the goofballs, like Chad Dallas, and you’ve got the grinders like Max Ferguson.

“I could talk all day, but this team is so infectious and, and the city of Knoxville is behind us, and we don’t intend on letting ‘em down. So that’s an unbelievable feeling, and we’ve earned it. We’ve earned it, and we’re excited to see how that environment is going to be next weekend, because I can’t wait.”

Heflin never expected he’d still be at Tennessee at this point. As much as he loves the Vols, he thought his sterling outing in the NCAA Tournament Chapel Hill Regional loss at North Carolina on June 2, 2019 would be his final outing with the Vols. He’d already gone through Senior Day at Lindsey Nelson, and he imagined taking his talents to the professional level or using his undergraduate degree in supply chain management — an area where UT is academically elite — and entering the real world. Things didn’t work out that way, though. He came back for the 2020 season, expecting it to be his last, but he injured his knee and was just about to return when the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the season.

Rather than sulk, though, Heflin stayed the course. He got married to Erika Long Heflin on Oct. 23, 2020. He picked up a Masters degree in recreation and sport management. He worked his way back from injury. He earned a spot in Tennessee’s weekend rotation. He helped the Vols win an SEC Eastern Division title, an NCAA Tournament regional title, a berth in the Super Regional round and a No. 2 national ranking. And he earned the Super Regional-clinching win on the mound.

(Photo: Tennessee Athletic Communications)

It would be so easy to reminisce on the big picture, but Heflin said he’s fighting back those feelings and focusing only on the task at hand — winning the Super Regional, punching a ticket to the College World Series and winning a national championship.

“Yeah, it’s been worth it, 100%. There’s no other way to put that,” Heflin said. “I mean, it’s hard to put into words. And I don’t want to, you know, … I don’t want to get to reminiscent, because like I’ve said several times, it’s not over. But it’s been absolutely worth it. And it hasn’t always been easy, but it’s been a whole lot of fun, a whole lot of grit, a whole lot of sweat. And I’m just really excited for next weekend.”

Pressed to at least glance at the big picture, though, Heflin noted how wild it was to again be sitting next to Vitello during an NCAA Tournament postgame press conference, just like he’d done two years ago in Chapel Hill.

“I’ve kind of got deja vu right now, because I was sitting next to him when we got when we got beat in that one,” he said. “And I’m looking at this post game [box score], and I’m like, ‘Winner, winner, winner, winner, winner, winner.’ And you can look at everybody who has been a part of this team and look back on a moment where maybe they were the hero or they kind of carried some of the load. And so for me to get the ball today, I knew it was gonna go well, like there was no doubt. I mean, how could it not go well, being around these guys, playing for this guy?

“You know, working as hard as we do year round, and all the circumstances that that have come along with it, it was just, it was awesome.”