Sports, Thrill of Victory

Wrapping up the SEC college baseball season

College baseball’s regular season ended this week as Vanderbilt lost its last two games in the College World Series to Virginia, making the Cavaliers the national champs. Chris Lee looks at that, and more, as he wraps up the Southeastern Conference baseball season.

Vanderbilt will have to make do without all-everything shortstop Dansby Swanson (black shirt) in 2015, but should have enough talent for a great season anyway.  PHOTO COURTESY VANDERBILT ATHLETICS

Vanderbilt will have to make do without all-everything shortstop Dansby Swanson in 2015, but should have enough talent for a great season anyway. PHOTO COURTESY VANDERBILT ATHLETICS

So, it wasn’t exactly the season Vanderbilt wanted, but it was pretty close. The Commodores won Game 1 of the College World Series finals before stunningly losing two of the next three to a Virginia team that had barely made it to the NCAA Tournament and looked overmatched compared to a veteran VU squad that won it all a year ago.

Surprise! The Cavaliers pieced it together with yeoman’s efforts from their pitchers and registered one of the bigger finals upsets in recent CWS history. That by no reason demeans what the Commodores did, as coach Tim Corbin has arguably built the Commodores into the nation’s preeminent college baseball powerhouse. The evidence: three appearances in college baseball’s “Final Four” in five years (2011 was the other) and a 2013 squad that, though it didn’t make it to Omaha, set the league’s all-time record for single-season conference wins.

Throw in the No. 1 recruiting class for next year, and the Commodores will be back competing for national titles sooner rather than later—and “sooner” might even be next year.

While that may be true about VU, it’s equally true that Florida will be the preseason No. 1 team last year. Like VU, the Gators were unceremoniously dumped by Virginia just before the Cavs knocked off the Commodores. With A.J. Puk and Logan Shore forming the nation’s best 1-2 starting pitching punch, J.J. Schwarz behind the plate and Buddy Reed in center, and more talented recruits coming, the Gators might be even scarier than they were this year, which is really saying something.

All-American Alex Lange will be back in Baton Rouge for two more years. PHOTO COURTESY LSU ATHLETICS

All-American Alex Lange will be back in Baton Rouge for two more years. PHOTO COURTESY LSU ATHLETICS

LSU’s Achilles’ heel was its lack of pitching depth and experience, and TCU exposed that in Omaha. The Tigers lose an all-senior outfield, plus junior shortstop Alex Bregman, and that’ll hurt Paul Maineri’s club. However, the Tigers always recruit well, that pitching staff led by All-American Alex Lange will return mostly intact, and that gives LSU a chance to get back to the big stage next season.

Arkansas just didn’t have the pitching depth to advance in Omaha, but it was a nice run for the Razorbacks. The pitching should be better with another year of experience, but the ‘Hawgs will have to replace center fielder Andrew Benintendi, who was the National Player of the Year.

Texas A&M was good enough to be in Omaha this year, but drew one tough matchup after another in the NCAAs. The Aggies had a deep pitching staff and will get back some arms it lost to injuries this year, plus, outfielder Nick Banks should be on the short list of NPOTY candidates for 2016.

Auburn returned to the NCAAs for the first time in years, and the Gators’ 1-2 punch of Keegan Thompson and Cole Lipscomb could challenge Florida’s for league supremacy. Throw in gifted center fielder Anfernee Grier and the Tigers should have a repeat date in the NCAAs in ’16.

Alabama also didn’t catch a lot of breaks this year, and will have two huge losses in right fielder Casey Hughston and shortstop Mikey White to overcome next year. However, the Crimson Tide will finally get to play all their games at their true home field of Sewell-Thomas Stadium for the first time since 2014 (it was off-limits due to renovation this year) and that alone should add some excitement to the 2016 campaign.

Georgia may be the SEC’s sleeping giant. The Bulldogs have one of the best recruiting bases in America and a coach in Scott Stricklin who knows what he’s doing. Rising junior Robert Tyler, the talented pitcher who was injured for much of 2016, could be a top-10 pick in next year’s draft, and UGA’s recruiting class is ranked 24th in the country, so that’s a good start.

PHOTO COURTESY KENTUCKY ATHLETICS.

Under coach Gary Henderson the Wildcats are poised to continue their move up the ranks of the SEC’s top rated teams. PHOTO COURTESY KENTUCKY ATHLETICS.

Kentucky challenged for an NCAA bid this year before falling off at season’s end. The Wildcats aren’t generally one of the league’s talent factories, however, coach Gary Henderson is an underrated coach and has a pair of true stars to build around in second baseman JaVon Shelby and pitcher Dustin Beggs, assuming Beggs, a 32nd-round pick of the Mets, doesn’t sign. Never sleep on Kentucky because the ‘Cats often find a way to overachieve.

Missouri was the league’s surprise team this year and the Tigers will presumably return two-thirds of one of the league’s better rotations with Reggie McClain and Tanner Hock back for ’16. The two issues that kept UM out of the 2015 tournament were a lack of overall hitting and a dearth of arms to win mid-week games. But, there will be a lot of returnees and with everyone a year better, Missouri could break through in 2016.

The Rebels’ unfriendly rivals from down the road should also be a factor. It’s not often that Mississippi State misses the NCAA Tournament, but a hard-luck season hit coach John Cohen’s club. MSU adds the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class according to Perfect Game, so expect a move in a better direction—remember, the Bulldogs were national runners-up in 2013.

PHOTO COURTESY TENNESSEE ATHLETICS

Tennessee coach Dave Serrano could have a tough 2016 ahead if his prized recruits decide to forego college and head for the MLB ranks instead. PHOTO COURTESY TENNESSEE ATHLETICS

Coach Mike Bianco had Ole Miss overachieving after the Rebels lost the bulk of the lineup from the 2014 Omaha team. But the same bunch that made a run from midseason on returns, making one of the league’s perennial contenders a force to be reckoned with for ’16 after bowing out early in the year’s NCAAs.

South Carolina didn’t make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999. If that happens in 2016, coach Chad Holbrook won’t be back for the ’17 season. Losing its best hitter (Kyle Martin) and best two pitchers (Jack Wynkoop, Wil Crowe) won’t help; a seventh-ranked recruiting class paired with the continued development of Alex Destino—a preseason All-American for 2015 even though he was a freshman—will.

I’m running out of reasons to explain how Tennessee hasn’t fared better under the guidance of Dave Serrano, one of the country’s best coaches. The Vols could potentially get decimated in the draft even more than they already have—left fielder Christin Stewart and recruit Ke’Bryan Hayes, both first-rounders, have already signed—and that could spell really bad things for a club already starting 2016 behind the eight-ball.