Griffin Merritt needed a fresh start last summer. After four seasons with the Cincinnati Bearcats, Merritt had plenty of options for the future. Professional baseball, dental school or playing for a new university were just some of the avenues at his crossroads.
After months of contemplating, Merritt ultimately decided to head down Interstate 75 and join the Tennessee Volunteers as a graduate transfer.
“I needed a new experience,” Merritt said. “I needed to do what’s best for me and my career.”
The platform Merritt was looking for is exactly what the Tennessee baseball program presents. And it wasn’t far away.
“(Knoxville) is 3 1/2 to four hours from Cincinnati,” said Merritt. “It’s really in the limelight of college baseball. They probably have more eyes on them than anyone in the country. That’s exactly what I wanted.”
Tennessee had a record-breaking year in 2022, winning 57 games and grabbing a No. 1 ranking for the first time in program history. The Vols also won their division by 10 games and the conference by six, with both categories being the largest final separation in Southeastern Conference history.
Merritt’s transition to the Volunteers
So, how can a 23-year-old Cincinnati native help a team at the forefront of the sport?
According to Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello, the newcomer’s veteran presence is making an immediate impact on the Volunteers.
“I’m not so sure he doesn’t serve as a bonus coach,” Vitello said. “For us, especially when it comes to the outfielders, hitting or maybe some of the freshmen that just need to be pulled off to the side.”
Vitello also cites toughness as an intangible that Merritt deploys. The former Bearcat wasted no time proving his motivation to stay on the field. In his 2023 debut, Merritt was nailed with an errant pitch square in the face.
“It’s pretty impressive,” Vitello said. “He showed it his first weekend. He took one on the nose and got cut. I didn’t even bother with our trainer because I knew (Merritt) wouldn’t come out of the game.”
The grit that Vitello praises of Merritt is an adjective that the Vols’ coach uses to describe what is lacking with some in the clubhouse following a midweek disappointment.
After a 10-inning, 7-6 loss to Boston College on Tuesday night, Vitello shared his sentiments about the difference in defeat.
“Good for you if you can hit it real hard or throw it real far,” Vitello says. “But, once the actual game starts, you got to have some grit about you, some determination. And they had more than we did tonight, which pains me to say. It’s not acceptable for someone else to have more grit than us, particularly on our field.”
Merritt providing roster with an experienced leader
After slashing .315/.382/.695 en route to earning the 2022 American Athletic Conference Player of the Year award, Merritt is currently posting an 1.010 OPS after 12 games with the Volunteers. The outfielder also has three hit-by-pitches along with six walks in 39 at-bats.
“I think everyone probably looks at me and says, ‘Hopefully he can play a good outfield and drive in runs in the middle of the lineup,” Merritt said. “What they don’t see is in that locker room. I have a lot of experience that I’ve learned the hard way and the good way.
“It’s just a second role to me, to be a leader on this team and help guys transition to be good players. With some guys there are growing pains. And, if I can assist in those growing pains, that’s probably the biggest compliment I can get.”
Merritt turned down visits last summer with teams such as Arkansas, Texas and Alabama. He committed to the Vols over attending the Ohio State College of Dentistry. The grad transfer also dealt with the tough decision of eliminating the chance to play with his younger brother, Nathan, who joined the Bearcats in the fall of 2022.
That choice was validated as soon as Merritt stepped foot on Rocky Top.
“I fell in love with the coaching staff, and honestly, the players,” Merritt said. “It was a no-brainer. I actually canceled a ton of visits after the trip. So, this is where I want to be.”
Merritt and the Vols have a chance to respond this weekend with a three-game set against Morehead State, their last weekend series before conference play begins.