The crowd at Omaha, Nebraska’s T.D. Ameritrade Park roared as Vanderbilt pitcher Adam Ravenelle stood on the pitcher’s mound, peering in at catcher Karl Ellison for the sign. Virginia’s Daniel Pinero stood in the right-handed batter’s box, staring back and waiting for whatever would come next. Seconds earlier, Pinero had not been able to handle Ravenelle’s 94-mile-per-hour tailing fastball, swinging and coming up empty. Knowing this, Ellison signaled for a slider, Ravenelle’s best pitch.
The pitch left Ravenelle’s fingers, and as the ball approached the plate, Pinero thought he’d be able to drive a belt-high pitch over the outer half of the plate somewhere. The moment he committed to swing, the battle was over; the pitch kept tailing away and Pinero was too late. The ball hit Ellison’s mitt and Ravenelle’s teammates went crazy, dog-piling him on the mound in a celebration un-matched in Commodore sports history.
The Vanderbilt Commodores were college baseball’s national champions. It was the first time in school history that a men’s team had won a title in a men’s sport, but it may not be the last.
The journey to get here had been arduous. When Tim Corbin took over as Vandy’s baseball coach in 2003, the Commodores hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1980, and they wouldn’t go his first year. But starting with the 2004 season, much better results were around the corner. Vanderbilt not only made the tournament that spring, but they advanced to a Super Regional where they lost at Texas.
Three years later, everyone thought Corbin had the team to win a national title; from the season’s third week on, it had been ranked No. 1 in the major polls for almost the entire year, but of course, one ill-fated swing from Michigan freshman Alan Oaks off a David Price fastball prevented the ‘Dores from even getting out of the tournament’s first weekend. Four long years later, the Commodores finally made the field of eight at the College World Series, but they had the misfortune to run into Florida—the one team that absolutely gave Vandy fits that year—in the national semifinals.
Last year, when VU posted the best regular-season record in the history of the Southeastern Conference at an unfathomable 26-3, the Commodores again looked like a team of destiny. Once again, it wasn’t meant to be, with Louisville coming to Nashville and upsetting the Commodores on their home field in a Super Regional.
With two-thirds of Corbin’s weekend pitching rotation gone, and the Commodores turning nearly their entire lineup over excepting shortstop Vince Conde, third baseman Xavier Turner and Zander Wiel, 2014 set up as a bit of a re-building year on its surface. But by now, Corbin didn’t re-build, he simply re-loaded with recruiting classes continually ranked among the nation’s best; the class of rising sophomores, which included Turner, pitching sensations Walker Buehler and Carson Fulmer, and middle infielder Dansby Swanson, had been rated the top class of recruits in America when it reported to campus, as had the one from the previous year.
For that reason, Corbin had a quiet confidence about 2014, knowing that if the team could just continue to gain experience throughout the spring, it had a chance in the postseason. Some anxious moments came when Vanderbilt lost four of five weekend series in a stretch that started at Mississippi State in late March, but sure enough, the team started to mature late in April.
Corbin then caught some of the breaks he’d never caught in the postseason before. Instead of having to go to Indiana for a super regional, Stanford upset the nation’s No. 4 seed and so Vanderbilt got the Cardinal at Hawkins Field instead, where it disposed of Stanford in three games to get to Omaha. Once it arrived at its western destination, Vanderbilt discovered that only two of the eight national seeds, Virginia and TCU, were there, and both were in the other side of the bracket.
This time, nearly everything that could have gone right, did; there was right fielder Rhett Wiseman saving a leadoff triple from Texas’s C.J. Hinohosa on an amazing play in the 10th inning of an elimination game in the semifinals that could well have been Vandy’s un-doing, and then came unexpected hero Tyler Campbell beating out an infield single with two outs in the bottom of that inning that scored the winning run and sent VU on to the title series against Virginia.
From there, the ‘Dores didn’t always play their best against the Cavaliers, nearly blowing a seven-run lead in Game 1 and looking generally lethargic in a Game 2 loss. But somehow, even with a tiring pitching staff they managed to stay even with the Cavs in Game 3 until left fielder John Norwood’s improbable eighth-inning homer of Virginia ace Nick Howard in the finale provided the winning margin.
I say “nearly everything” went right, because some big things didn’t. The starting pitching let Corbin down in a big way in those final two weeks, as his starters posted a 7.12 ERA from the super regional on. But through relief performances from Tyler Ferguson, Ravenelle, Brian Miller, Columbia native Hayden Stone and a terrific all-around performance from Swanson, the College World Series Most Valuable Player, the Commodores brought home college baseball’s biggest prize. The fact that Vanderbilt was able to do it despite the failure of its biggest strength demonstrates the magnitude of what Corbin has built, as does the fact that Corbin’s first national title was won by what may have been his fourth-best team.
And if opponents couldn’t handle Vandy in 2014, then God help ‘em next year, for most of the talent returns, including Team USA members Buehler, Fulmer, Brentwood native Bryan Reynolds and Swanson, not to mention Stone and Murfreesboro’s Zander Wiel, the slugging first baseman whose productivity suffered through much of the spring due to an elbow injury.
So when the polls come out next spring and Vanderbilt’s ranked No. 1, don’t be surprised. The question is, can anyone else on campus join Corbin’s club in the national spotlight?
That question, which not long ago seemed ridiculous to everyone, doesn’t seem quite as silly any more. Vanderbilt athletics director David Williams spoke about the impact that the baseball title was having on athletics less than a month later.
“For all of us [at Vanderbilt], we already thought we’re moving forward [in sports]. We’ve done a lot of things we haven’t done before, but I think to a lot of other people, it sort of opens the door. It’s alright to think of Vanderbilt in an athletic way, it’s alright to cheer for Vanderbilt, it’s alright to be a Commodore fan, because they’re in there with the big boys, if you like. That’s what it really does for the rest of the world,” Williams said on VandySports.com Radio on July 19.
“It’s really been cool and overwhelming to walk into Kroger or Publix or the post office and have someone congratulate me on us winning the championship, or saying great things, but now everyone I’m seeing is saying ‘Anchor down,’ he continued later.
Williams has also said that the national title has also made for a friendly rivalry among other campus coaches to see who can do it next, now that Corbin has proven it can be done. Of course, Corbin’s not the only coach on campus with a national crown; coach John Williamson captured one back in 2007 with the women’s bowling team.
On that note, the Commodores have done well in several sports that don’t quite get the headlines. Men’s golf finished 16th nationally at the NCAA Championships last season, while the women finished 10th. The men’s tennis team nearly captured VU’s first national title—it finished national runner-up in 2003—and made the Sweet 16 last year. Their female counterparts have been to 19-straight NCAA Tournaments and reached the second round each of the past two seasons.
As for Vandy’s more publicized programs, the coach with the best shot of getting in the national limelight next year seems to be women’s hoops coach Melanie Balcomb, who has taken VU to the NCAA Tournament in each of her 12 seasons. While NCAA Tournament success has been elusive lately, a top 20 recruiting class, plus the return of former McDonald’s All-American recruit Rebecca Dahlman (she redshirted as a freshman last season after suffering a blood clot in her leg) has Balcomb optimistic that deeper tourney runs are around the corner.
As for the men, while coach Kevin Stallings’ young club might take its lumps in 2014-15, it’ll be with the best freshman class he’s signed in six years. The Commodores also have two commitments for the 2015 class that are ranked in Rivals.com’s top 150 recruits and will also have talented Cornell transfer Nolan Cressler available, making for a potentially interesting 2015-16 campaign.
While the football team is taking its lumps early in 2014, Commodore fans will hope for better things in 2015, when VU will be in its second year under coach Derek Mason’s new system. If you’re looking for hope, here it is: the ‘Dores should return over 60 lettermen in 2015, and for some perspective there, only three of the nation’s 128 FBA teams returned that many for 2015.
“We’re not through by any means… we’ve got a lot more goals we want to reach, and do it in a way that will make the university proud,” Williams says.
After Corbin took what might have been the worst program at Vanderbilt to the greatest heights in VU sports history, it’s hard to rule anything out.