‘Stark’ contrasts

From family of Aggies to Orange-clad UT joy; from COVID-19-marred finish to NCAA champ

  • Cal Stark, Tennessee Vols senior catcher and 2020 Farragut High graduate, is greeted by UT sophomore pitcher Marcus Phillips (44) during the Men’s College World Series championship series deciding game versus Texas A&M Monday night, June 25, in Omaha, won by the Vols 6-5 to capture the MCWS title. - Photos courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

  • A happy Stark enjoys the post-game national championship ceremony in Omaha. - Photos courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

  • Stark prepares to bat versus North Carolina Sunday, June 17. - Photos courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

OMAHA, Nebraska — It was a “Stark” contrast between his family’s college baseball loyalty just two years ago, Texas A&M Aggies to the core, and being clad in Big Orange in 2024.

It was another “Stark” contrast to go from the sadness brought about by COVID-19, ending his Farragut Admirals bid for a baseball state title repeat his senior season in 2020, to ending his college career being the main focus of ESPN cameras the split second his UT Vols were national champs, after a strikeout, winning the Mens College World Series versus Texas A&M 6-5 Monday, June 25.

Cal Stark raced in joy from behind the plate — tossing his mask, helmet and glove and almost tackling closer Aaron Combs.

“Man, it was just pure joy … being able to live that and experience it is something that I’ll never forget,” said Stark, starting catcher for the MCWS champion Vols, (60-13), also SEC regular season co-champions and SEC Tournament champs.

Going back to the disappointment of 2020 “and looking back on that, and then fast forwarding into now, I’ve come a long way in my career,” added the ex-Admiral, whose efforts of handling UT pitchers as the catcher and his clutch 2-run homer in the eighth inning of game 2 versus the Aggies in the MCWS best-of-three series were critical to the Vols’ No. 1 success.

Stark began playing for Tennessee in 2023 after stints at two junior colleges in Texas, ironically his home state.

“I think if you told me in my senior year in high school that I would have been the starting catcher on the national champion Tennessee Volunteers team in 2024, I don’t know if I would have believed you. I might have called you crazy,” he said.

“But a lot of hard work went into that, a lot of self-confidence and just betting on myself rather than taking an easy way out or jumping ship,” Stark added. “A lot of people doubted me and hated on me, and you just have to put that aside and just worry about what you are trying to get done that day, whether it’s doing your homework or trying to win a baseball game.

“So to be able to come from not starting at my high school and then not having a chance to play my senior year, to playing back-to-back years in Omaha and come out on top to end my college career was something that is very special and something that I take a lot of pride in because it wasn’t always easy.”

About his clutch 2-run homer deep to left field in a must-win situation in game 2 versus the Aggies, with the Vols only up 2-1 in the top of the eighth inning, “My main goal was just try and put a quality at-bat together ... there were two outs and two strikes when I hit that,” the ex-Admiral added about the home run, as UT won 4-1 in Game 2 Sunday, June 24, to even the series 1-1.

“So I’ll never forget: my bat slipped out of my hands the pitch before that home run, and Christian (Moore, UT All-American second baseman) grabbed it and gave it back to me and said, ‘Keep going, dude. Keep fighting. ...’

That huge home run “is something that I’ll never forget for sure,” Stark also added. “I’m getting goose bumps thinking about it right now. Rounding those bases on the biggest stage in college baseball in a must-win game for us, and then getting to just hear the crowd, pretty much just screaming at the top of their lungs, and then seeing my teammates.

“… Just being able to do that and contribute to the team and that win in that moment and keeping our season alive was really special,” he added.

As for his first connection with the Farragut/Knoxville area, “I was born in Texas; then in 2017, my mom, her job had us move up here,” he said about entering his sophomore year at FHS.

After graduating high school, “I went back to junior college in Texas for two years,” Stark said. “And pretty much after my freshman year, my goal was to come back and play for the Vols. So I wanted to play in front of my parents and in front of my high school coaches, my high school friends.”

Before he wore Tennessee orange, “I would say probably more than half of my family were A&M fans,” the FHS graduate said. “A lot of people from my high school back in Texas, the two big schools that people went to down there was either A&M or Texas Tech. I’d say it’s probably about 50/50.

“Being able to beat them was a little extra special for me,” he added.

Moreover, “One of my best friends, she goes to A&M, and she actually was in Omaha,” Stark said. ”She was here for our Super Regionals in Knoxville, and she was decked out head-to-toe in orange. So I think it’s safe to say we’ve definitely converted her; my family has definitely converted her over to the good side.”

Vols head coach Tony Vitello said about Stark, “he’s an unbelievable kid and he’s so sound defensively. ... Cal has been our guy for a couple of years. ... He knows how to work or orchestrate a game from behind (the plate) and be that leader.”

While in Omaha, Stark said he was in daily contact with Matt Buckner, his FHS head coach. Buckner labeled Stark “a really awesome young man, great demeanor, great competitor; he’s a winner.”