Photo By Ian Cox/Tennessee Athletics
Tennessee senior reliever Camden Sewell paces. In the dugout, in the bullpen and even talking on the phone at home.
“He refuses to sit down,” Tennessee strength and conditioning coach Quentin Eberhardt jokes.
Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello used to not like it. Vitello coached it out of another player when he was an assistant at TCU. But with Sewell it represents what he loves about the fifth-year senior.
“I think he kind of sees this in his head appropriately that this is his team,” Vitello said. “At first it would stress me out, but now I like it. I think it’s a sign of him being hooked up in his intent and a little bit of his swagger, belief and confidence.”
Not everyone can get away with Sewell’s pacing, but not everyone has sacrificed what Sewell’s sacrificed to propel Tennessee into a top tier SEC baseball program.
Ready to “give it all” in his final go around, Sewell’s competitiveness and mental fortitude have come to represent everything that’s made Vol baseball thrive.
An Uncertain Summer Leads To A Trying Fall
Tennessee baseball’s historic 2022 season ended a game short of a return trip to the College World Series and Cam Sewell didn’t know what was next.
Sewell had one year of eligibility remaining due to NCAA COVID-19 eligibility relief and a spot on a minor league roster waiting for him. But Sewell’s collegiate production was always better than his MLB Draft stock. Nagging injuries throughout his career amplified that.
“It came to a point in my life really where I kind of got caught in the middle of like what I wanted to do,” Sewell told RTI earlier this week. “Didn’t really have a set path of anything in mind so I kind of had to sit down and gather my thoughts of everything.”
Sewell never closed the door on his baseball career but when a job opportunity at American Accessories International presented itself, he jumped at it.
The Cleveland, Tennessee native went to work and “didn’t touch a baseball all summer.” But Vitello was persistent in trying to get one of his top relievers back and by late July Sewell decided to do just that.
But with one catch. Like the vast majority of baseball players, Sewell wasn’t on a full scholarship and the state of Tennessee’s HOPE Scholarship doesn’t apply to graduate students. Having already earned his undergraduate degree, Sewell needed money to help pay for a year of graduate school.
“My big thing was, I didn’t want me to affect anybody else’s scholarships or anything like that,” Sewell said. “My big thing was that if I was going to come back another year it’s like I have to figure out a way to do it on my own without any help, kind of.”
So Sewell decided to use his final season of eligibility while keeping his job in product development with American Accessories. The Tennessee reliever worked 40 hours a week in the fall, showing up to afternoon practice in office attire.
“You have to be a little insane to do some of the stuff he’s done,” Sewell’s former teammate turned coach Redmond Walsh said.
“He would come in his khakis and work stuff and change out,” Eberhardt said. “That’s what we are. That’s what we embody as a program anyway and Cam exemplifies that.”
Sewell’s hours have predictably decreased during the season but he still goes into the office a “couple times a week” and plans on going back to 40 hours a week when the season ends.
“I enjoyed it and I learned a lot of cool things that I can relate a lot to business and can relate to baseball in different ways,” Sewell said. “Combining those aspects of things has been kind of unique.”
Working a full-time job and showing up to baseball practice every day was hard enough. But after not touching a baseball in the summer, Sewell’s body was lagging behind as he attempted to get back in the groove of things.
“Mentally that was the most draining part of the fall was just not being able to compete out here with the guys that I love being around,” Sewell said.
The fall injuries were just the beginning of a year that’s pushed Sewell to the brink both physically and mentally.
Photo via Tennessee Athletics
How Quentin Eberhardt’s ‘Feel’ Helps Sewell Perform At His Best
Tennessee strength and conditioning coach Quentin Eberhardt compares the wear-and-tear on Sewell’s body to that of a 15-year MLB veteran.
Sewell dealt with injuries in his collegiate career before this season. Tennessee’s often been cautious with him early in the season including in 2020 when he made just one appearance on the season before COVID-19 canceled it.
But this year has been more dramatic. Sewell threw just nine pitches before SEC play began. After totaling 45-plus innings in each of his first three seasons not impacted by COVID-19, Sewell enters this weekend’s Hattiesburg Super Regional having thrown just 22 this season.
Arm soreness has been a problem all season but through his own perseverance and Eberhardt’s wisdom, Sewell has remained a key cog in the back end of Tennessee’s bullpen.
“I guess the easiest way to describe it is basically using the (workout) program as a playbook and not the Bible,” Eberhardt said.
“Q(uentin Eberhardt) has a lot of feel and at the same time pushes you to the edge,” Sewell added.
Sewell doesn’t always do the same workouts as his teammates and his workload changes day-to-day depending on how his body is feeling. The process is unique and communication between Sewell, Eberhardt, trainer Jeff Wood and pitching coach Frank Anderson is key.
But the specified plan isn’t too far off the norm in a strength program that prides itself on individualization.
“We individualize things,” Eberhardt said. “It’s what we had to do for Cam. We have individualized all of our guys’ programs and have taken quite a few steps further to just try and help Cam be the best he could be every day not just every gameday.”
“Q jokes a lot all of the time about my body but I wish it wasn’t a joke, to say the least,” Sewell said. “I wish I could do a lot of the things the other guys (do), … and it’s just one of those things where Q has done really well of being able to communicate and figure out things I can do that isn’t going to affect me as much as something else they may be doing.”
Sewell’s making the most out of his final season despite the nagging arm soreness. The super senior says this season has “been the most challenging by far” while also describing the way the team has come together and improved as “special”. He has no regrets about his decision to return and admits it’s “hard not to look at the bigger picture” with Tennessee two wins away from exercising last year’s demons and returning to the College World Series.
As he enters the home stretch of what he plans on being his final baseball season, Sewell’s ready to leave everything he’s got on the field.
“This is my last go around so unless I’m not physically able to be out there, I’m going to be out there and I know me and Coach V go back-and-forth but he’s going to have to come take the ball out of my hand. I’m not just going to give it up,” Sewell said. “It’s one of those things with this being our last go around, it’s literally like give it all you have and we’ll worry about the after results after the year is over.”
Sewell’s commitment and toughness makes him a favorite amongst his teammates and coaches. Ask anyone in the Volunteer program about what Sewell’s meant to it over the last five years and they’ll rave about his impact.
“He’s not going to out lift anybody. He’s not going to beat anybody in a race,” Eberhardt said. “But I tell you what, … (if) I’m on the side of the road in a monsoon and need somebody to help me change a tire, that’s who I want with me. There ain’t no question. That’s who I want. I know for a fact he’s going to show up and he’s going to be right there and he’s going to help me as much as I needed and there’s going to be no excuses.”
Photo By Ian Cox/Tennessee Athletics
How Sewell Embraced His Role And Reinvented Himself
Sewell admits that he was bitter early in his career that he wasn’t a weekend starter. From his freshman year, Sewell was one of Tennessee’s most effective pitchers and has been more than capable of starting.
But Sewell was too valuable out of the bullpen and outside of a pair of spot starts in the SEC Tournament he has been a key bullpen arm for the Vols throughout his career.
“He’s unbelievable out of the bullpen and that’s kind of the reason they’ve kind of kept him there,” Walsh said. “It’s so nice to have a guy in the back end of the game that you can rely on.”
But after COVID-19 canceled the 2020 season, Sewell’s perspective changed. He lost the bitterness and simply focused on trying “to be the best teammate” he could. Ironically, the competitiveness that made him bitter about not starting made him love pitching out of the bullpen and made him particularly effective in those spots.
“I love the tight moments more than being up in a five-run game,” Sewell said. “So for me, it kind of works out. I sound selfish but at the end of the day if the game’s on the line, if you’re a pitcher and a competitor, you want the ball in your hand even if it’s a chance to lose.”
But even in a storied career, Sewell’s faced challenges on the mound in large part due to his physical limitations. After boasting a mid-90s fastball his first few seasons, his velocity is down to the low-90s. That made Sewell reinvent himself as a pitcher as his career developed.
“As much as I’d like to be like freshman year Cam throwing 95 (mph), that’s just not me anymore so it’s like now I can’t just blow it by people I have to learn how to pitch and learn how to get people out,” Sewell said.
There have been pitfalls this season. Sewell’s 4.09 ERA is over a run worse than his previous career-high, though offensive numbers are up across the board in college baseball this season.
Sewell won’t use it as an excuse, but Walsh admits both the physical injuries and the mental wear plays a part.
“No one ever talks about the mental side of it,” Walsh said. “Am I going to have my best stuff today, or am I going to be able to go out there and compete at the highest level that I know I can? And if I am at 70% how am I going to be able to get this guy out and I think that’s kind of the trial and tribulations he’s gone through.”
The numbers are even a little misleading, Sewell’s allowed seven of his 10 earned runs in two outings. He was dominant in 2.1 innings as Tennessee turned its season around in a win over Vanderbilt. Sewell was equally critical in extended outings in victories over LSU, Mississippi State and Georgia.
As Tennessee heads to Hattiesburg, there’s maybe no one on the roster Vitello trusts more than Sewell.
“(Camden has) the ball in an important situation, I know this kid’s character. I know his preparation and am good with whatever happens,” Vitello said. “Good, bad, indifferent, terrible.”
“That’s my guy.”