The last time that Will Heflin pitched against Liberty ended with a much different outcome for the Vols. It was in the 2019 Chapel Hill Regional opener, a game Liberty won that sent the Vols to the loser’s bracket. Tennessee would go on to lose in the regional final.
Much has changed for Heflin since then. He got married, missed the 2020 campaign while rehabbing from offseason knee surgery, and returned for a fifth season with the Vols – one in which he transformed from a spot starter out of the pen into Tennessee’s regular Saturday starter. And Sunday night, in the Knoxville Regional Final, Heflin delivered 5.1 innings of one-run ball as the Vols defeated Liberty 3-1.
Heflin’s sharp outing helped the Vols’ win the Knoxville Regional title and advance to an NCAA Super Regional for the first time since 2005. Liberty made Heflin work – four hits and a walk on 97 pitches – but the senior lefty tied a career-high with eight strikeouts as he shut down the same team that burned Tennessee two years ago.
“I kind of got déjà vu right now, because I was sitting next to (Tony Vitello) when we got beat,” Heflin said. “And I'm looking at this, postgame (box score) and I'm looking at my teammates’ names thinking: 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 where they kind of carried some of the load.
“And so, for me to get the ball today, I knew it was going to go well—like there was no doubt. I mean, how could it not?”
Heflin had two runners on in both the first and third innings, but each time got out of the jam with a swinging strikeout. His night culminated in the sixth inning, when the first three Flames reached base -- a hit by pitch, a double and a fielder’s choice that brought in Liberty’s only run of the evening.
Vitello let Heflin face one more batter, the lefty Brady Gulakowski, who battled the Vols’ starter for 12 pitches, working a full count before Heflin struck him out looking on the 13th pitch of the at-bat. Vitello went to the bullpen, and Heflin exited to a standing ovation from the crowd at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
“It all started with Will Heflin, who I think mistakenly felt he let us down last Sunday in the SEC Championship Game,” Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said. “When in reality he was phenomenal for us then, and he was just as outstanding tonight.”
The Vols gave Heflin an early lead in the third on Jake Rucker’s RBI single. Two frames later, the Knoxville NCAA Regional’s Most Outstanding Player Drew Gilbert gave the Vols’ some breathing room with his third home run of the tournament, a two-run blast over the scoreboard in right field.
Those three runs -- only a third of what the Vols put up in each of their first two tournament games -- proved to be enough, as Sean Hunley completed 3.2 scoreless innings out of the bullpen to close the game, allowing only two baserunners over that span.
With the win, the Vols will not only advance to an NCAA Super Regional, but they will host one for the first ever time in its current format. They will welcome the winner of the Eugene Regional in a best-of-three series, either the tournament’s 14 overall seed Oregon or SEC rival LSU.
But the most important thing to Heflin was putting his team in a position to win, after what he – the ultimate competitor -- felt was a disappointing effort in the SEC Championship Game loss to Arkansas.
“I gave us a chance to win, but it wasn’t good enough,” Heflin said on his mentality after the loss in Hoover. “I’m a competitor, and I’ll be the first one to admit that. Today was good enough and I was pretty determined all week. I kind of saw how it was lining up, for me to potentially have a chance to continue our season if we needed to beat somebody twice, or to just wrap this thing up.
“To go out there and wrap this thing up was a pretty sweet feeling.”