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Hunter Ensley had a rocky start when he joined the University of Tennessee’s baseball team. But now, three seasons in, Tennessee’s “Comeback Kid” has finally found his footing on the baseball diamond.
You can find Ensley’s name on almost all of Tennessee’s starting lineups this season. You can watch the center fielder play, and every once in a while, you’ll see the words “Huntingdon, Tennessee,” on the big screen.
Ensley made Huntingdon High School history in 2019 when he was a finalist for Tennessee Class A Mr. Baseball and Mr. Football. He helped lead the Mustangs to a 13-1 record and an appearance in the Class A state semifinals in 2019, and he was the 2019 All-West Tennessee Baseball Player of the Year. He graduated in May 2020.
He accepted a baseball scholarship from UT-Knoxville his freshman year of high school, when Dave Serrano still coached the Vols. Coach Serrano resigned in 2017, and Tony Vitello filled the vacant position. Coach Vitello visited and watched Ensley play, also deciding to recruit him. In November 2019, Ensley signed the letter of intent to play at the University of Tennessee under Coach Vitello.
His last high school baseball season was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and his expectations were high for Tennessee baseball.
“I guess you could say I thought it was gonna be a little bit easier than, obviously, it is,” said Ensley. “Coming from Huntingdon, I had big expectations. I wanted to play immediately when I got there, but that wasn’t the case, unfortunately.”
His first year was different than he anticipated. He sustained a shoulder injury that required labrum surgery. That season, he made his collegiate debut as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning against Charlotte. It was his only at-bat.
Sophomore year, he was still recovering from his shoulder surgery. He recorded his first career hit in a win against Georgia Southern.
In the summer of 2022, Ensley went to Santa Barbara to play summer baseball. He was finally able to play after three years. Every day, he would go to the baseball field and work on developing his arm and shoulder again, watching his own progress. Seeing his success on the field and building his confidence in his arm helped him take his next steps in his baseball career.
“I think there was sometimes a blurry vision of not being sure what I was gonna be able to do, baseball-wise. But once I got that confidence back, I knew this could be something I could see a future in, especially at Tennessee, but also possibly in pro ball,” said Ensley.
Coach Vitello noticed Ensley’s progress over the summer. This year, Ensley made his first career start in a game against Grand Canyon, the second game of the season.
Looking back, he realized that his experiences freshman and sophomore year helped him become a stronger athlete. “People back home would know me from my high school stuff, where I never faced any adversity,” he said. “I never struggled. Sometimes I think as an athlete, it’s good to struggle and keep pushing forward and really digging deep and seeing what you have in you to overcome those struggles and the adversity to get on the other side and start playing and seeing some success on a big time stage.”
And he has seen success this season. He scored two home runs in a game against Vanderbilt, four hits against South Carolina, three runs against LSU, and six putouts at Georgia. His hitting average was .277, and he helped the Vols win 41 games. His name was on almost every game’s starting lineup.
“It was pretty cool, you know, to get your first start at a university you watched growing up your whole life,” he said. “But obviously the goal wasn’t just to get on the starting lineup every day. It was to have success and help the team win.”
Even during his freshman and sophomore seasons, he knew how to help his team. “I needed to be a great teammate,” he said. “That’s what I could do to help this team be better, because I wasn’t playing on the field.”
He said Coach Vitello has done a great job bringing his teammates together and giving them a clear vision of what each player needs to be before they can become a good baseball player. “I think he’s built a safe space for all the baseball players to go. It’s like a little family,” said Ensley. “It gives you that peace of mind knowing you can go somewhere and everybody cares about you. It’s a great place to be.”
Since Vitello took over as head coach, the Vols have become an unbreakable brotherhood with their own slew of traditions. They made headlines with their signature “Daddy” hat, a pink hat players would wear after hitting home runs. In the 2022 season, players wore a fur coat to celebrate home runs. This year, they brought out a Darth Vader mask and lightsaber.
“We try and keep it fun,” said Ensley.
Ensley has come a long way since joining the Vols, and he hopes to go even further. As the postseason winds down, he has thought about joining the Major League Baseball Draft.
“When you play at a place like Tennessee, you find reasons to want to come back to something in a place as special as this. You know, you have all of your friends and, I mean, really, your family down at the baseball field that you would be leaving. So you kind of look for reasons to come back,” he said. “But the big picture is setting myself up financially, later in life. If that opportunity arises for me, I would probably consider going to the draft.”
His dream since he was a kid was to play professional baseball. Now, he’s working to make his dream come true while also being a role model for young athletes. This winter, he helped run the Dyersburg Sportsplex Baseball Clinic with Vol teammates Kyle Booker and Ethan Payne. There, he helped kids ages 5-15 develop their hitting, fielding and skills.
“I try and stay involved when I go back home and let kids know that whatever they want to do in life is possible, no matter where they come from,” he said. “Obviously, it’s tough anywhere you are or anywhere you live.”
Even now, as he plays against some of the most talented players in the country, he says he often looks back on his childhood memories. “I think one of my earliest memories would be our 8U Machine Pitch Tournament on my Huntingdon Little League team,” he said. “We won state that year.”
He said he is especially grateful for his parents, Marty and Alice Ensley, and his older sister, Carson Ensley, for helping him reach where he is today. He is also grateful for his high school baseball coach Alan Eubanks and former coach Jimmy Carey, who died in 2021.
On Sunday, June 4, the Vols defeated the Charlotte 49ers in the final round of the Clemson Regional Tournament, leading them to play in the Super Regionals for the fifth time in program history. The Vols (41-19) take on Southern Miss (45-18) at Pete Taylor Park in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, June 10-12. Stay up-to-date as Ensley and the Vols get one step closer to playing in the College World Series in Omaha.
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