Ethan Paul has had some soaring moments of accomplishment during his four years at Vanderbilt, none greater than helping lead the Commodores to the championship series at the College World Series. The best-of-three showdown with Michigan began Monday in Omaha, Neb., with the Wolverines winning 7-4.
Paul, who starred at Newport High School in Bellevue, also has had some deep disappointments, such as falling to the 26th round in the 2018 draft after being projected before the season as a third- to sixth-round pick.
But nothing was as profound, or devastating, as the death of teammate Donny Everett in a drowning accident in June 2016, just as Vandy was readying for the regional tournament. Known as “Donny Fastball,” Everett had been the top-ranked recruit in Paul’s glittering freshman class and a likely future first-round pick.
Three years later, as the Commodores seek their first national title since 2014, Paul and the rest of Vandy’s seniors have Everett on their minds. Everett’s parents, Teddy and Susan, are at TD Ameritrade Park to watch the finals.
“It hit us hard, but it brought us closer, especially the senior class now,” Paul said in a phone interview this past weekend. “We bonded around that. We’ll never forget him.
“It’s not spoken every moment, but every time I look at Teddy, I see Donny. It would be awesome to win this and experience it for him. It would be an amazing moment.”
This College World Series final has a decidedly Northwest flair. Michigan features outfielder Jesse Franklin from Seattle Prep and third baseman Blake Nelson from Mount Rainier High School in Des Moines in its starting lineup. Paul, Vanderbilt’s shortstop and team captain, likes the idea of raising awareness of the vastly underrated level of baseball played in Washington.
“There’s always that stigma of kids coming out of the colder northern states not having as much experience or talent or being equipped to be successful at a major-college program,” Paul said. “But if you’re talented enough to play college baseball, they’ll find you.”
Vanderbilt found Paul between the summer of his freshman and sophomore years, after he caught their eye in some USA showcases and at Vandy’s winter camp. The liaison was Trent Jewett, then an assistant at Vanderbilt and currently the coach at Tulane. Jewett had strong Northwest ties as a Tacoma native and Washington State graduate.
Vandy, which was rising to national prominence, offered a scholarship in February of Paul’s sophomore year (he attended Bellevue’s International School while competing for Newport). With few Northwest schools yet on board and Vanderbilt’s growing reputation, “it seemed like the right fit,” he said. “I couldn’t say no.”
Paul led Newport to second place in the state as a senior and became the first four-year starter for The Boys of Summer, a summer-league team for high-school-age players. By his final year, “he literally ran the entire defense,” said Kevin Ticen, the Boys of Summer coach and a former University of Washington player. “Really, his junior year, too.
“He’s one of the hardest-working kids I’ve ever coached,” Ticen added. “He wanted to be great so much.”
As a freshman, Paul was beaten out for the job of succeeding All-American Dansby Swanson at shortstop by Connor Kaiser, his roommate and close friend. So he moved to second base for three years next to Kaiser, a third-round pick of the Pirates last year. Paul was a freshman All-American in 2016 and a Cape Cod League All-Star in 2016 and ’17.
But in 2018, with the draft looming, Paul faltered offensively in the second half. He finished with a .237 batting average, and though he did hit a huge, game-tying home run in the bottom of the ninth in Game 3 of the Super Regionals – which the Commodores lost in extra innings – he slipped precipitously in the draft.
“To be perfectly honest, that was crushing for all of us,” Ticen said. “Going into the year, there were such high expectations.”
“That’s life sometimes,” Paul said. “You don’t always get the things you’re looking for right away.”
Paul cites Ticen and Newport’s Brad Files as two influential coaches from his developmental years in Bellevue. Ticen was about to call Paul to advise him to return to school for his senior year rather than sign with Pittsburgh when Paul called to inform him he planned to do just that.
“I told him, ‘You spared me the whole speech,’ ” Ticen said, laughing.
The decision turned out to be wise. Paul moved back to shortstop, anchoring one of the nation’s strongest defenses. And he regained his offensive stroke, hitting .323 while leading the rugged SEC with 70 runs batted in, just four short of the school’s season record. During the CWS, Paul set the Vandy record with his 64th career double.
“I wanted to come back and finish on a stronger note, both personally and as a team,” Paul said.
The upshot is that this month, the Pirates drafted Paul again – this time in the ninth round. And after coming excruciatingly close to the CWS but just missing out each time, the Commodores returned to Omaha and stand on the brink of winning it all.
Whatever happens, Paul will have a new second home after he begins his pro career. He plans to spend next offseason in Nashville, a place he has fallen in love with.
“It feels right,” he said.
And win or lose, Paul and the Commodores will continue to have Everett in their hearts.