The promise of spring is never more evident than when baseball teams at every level of play begin their seasons. And at the collegiate level, that early promise has either been realized or vanquished long before the first Fourth of July fireworks have exploded in the night sky.
The Vanderbilt University baseball team enjoyed a spring for the ages in 2014, gathering enough momentum and confidence through the first three weeks of June to win the NCAA Division I College World Series Championship. Promise was not only realized, but completely fulfilled.
It was the first NCAA national championship ever won by a men’s athletic program at the prestigious academic university in Nashville, Tenn., and only the second national crown ever worn by a sports team at the school: the Commodores’ women’s bowling team won an NCAA title in 2007.
With that history as a backdrop, it would be easy to assume that the congratulatory back-slapping and high-fiving among members of the baseball program would continue well into the 2014-15 fall workout season.
The team’s first meeting together this past fall proved how far off base that assumption was. Tim Corbin – the 53-year-old head coach who brought the College World Series championship to Vanderbilt in his 12th season at the school – walked into that first meeting on the most even of keels.
He had guided the Commodores to Omaha and the CWS in 2011 and in the years hence had watched as a quiet but supreme confidence enveloped the program. When that happens, there is no need to remind anyone of past successes or to keep celebrating past victories.
“The first meetings (in the fall) are foundational meetings and at this one I didn’t talk about baseball, I didn’t even bring up the national championship. We didn’t even get to the word ‘baseball,’” Corbin told PG during a recent telephone interview. “We just talked about our program and moving forward and what we thought we could do inside of our program to give us the best chance to succeed academically and athletically.”
Even if the Commodores haven’t spent the fall and early winter months talking about their 2014 CWS championship, the title provides perspective into the way others anticipate the upcoming 2015 season. Today Vanderbilt is announced as the No. 1 team in the country in the Perfect Game Preseason National Top 25 Rankings.
The top ranking is a product of incredibly high expectations brought on by the return of three starting position players and six pitchers, including 2015 PG First Team Preseason All-Americans shortstop Dansby Swanson, and starting right-handed pitchers Carson Fulmer and Walker Buehler, all juniors. Sophomore outfielder/designated hitter Bryan Reynolds is a PG Second Team Preseason All-American.
While the 2014 CWS National Championship may not have been discussed at that first team meeting in the fall, there still were plenty of hugs to go around amongst the returning players – the incoming freshmen will have to wait their turn. But in more ways than not, it really was like any other year.
“Everyone was just so excited to be together and see each other,” Swanson told PG during a separate telephone conversation. “It’s a special (group) here as far as the family and the unity is concerned and we were just all glad to see each other. It’s all about who we are and it’s good to see your good buddies and your best friends and things of that nature.
“I wouldn’t say things had changed because every year you’re on a mission and there are different motivations for each part of the season … and it was good to be together again and start a new family (with the freshmen).”
THE COMMODORES FINISHED THE 2014 SPRING SEASON with a 51-21 overall record, which included a 17-13 mark in Southeastern Conference play; 1-2 in the SEC Tournament; 5-1 in NCAA Regional and Super Regional action, and 5-2 at the CWS – they beat Virginia 2-games-to-1 in the best-of-3 championship finals.
Vandy zipped through its 2014 pre-conference slate with a 16-2 record before the reality of life in the SEC set in. The Dores started league play with a 3-4 mark and then went 1-2 in three consecutive three-game April series against Tennessee, Texas A&M and Arkansas.
They finished the conference regular season by going 9-3 in their last four series against Georgia, Missouri, Florida and South Carolina to finish with that league mark of 17-13. At the SEC Tournament played in Hoover, Ala., Vandy snuck by Tennessee in its tourney opener but then was sent home after one-sided losses to LSU and Ole Miss.
“After the SEC Tournament we had a few days to figure some things out, and we were close enough to be able to figure them out,” Swanson said. “We found our game and our style and we had a lot of confidence going into the end of the year.”
Corbin saw much of the same thing:
“It was a team that continued to grow as the season progressed,” he said. “We started out well and then, like a lot of teams, we hit a skid during the middle of the year. We changed a couple things from a pitching standpoint. We just shuffled some roles more than anything else – we still had the same faces and same arms pitching -- we just shuffled some roles.
“Physical and mental maturity started to move in the right direction and the energies got flowing the same way, and the next thing you know after the SEC Tournament the confidence started to grow.”
As May turned into June, the Dores were playing their best baseball of the season, evidenced by their 3-0 mark in the Regional and by taking 2-of-3 from Stanford in the Super Regional. The next stop was Omaha and Corbin was feeling pretty good about his group.
“When you arrive in Omaha, regardless of who you are, you have to think that way and you do think that way. You’re there for a reason and there are eight teams that played very consistent baseball to get to where they are,” he said. “I felt like if we could get through game one then we would have an opportunity to possibly get into the winner’s bracket. I thought our pitching was lined up well and I felt like our starting pitching was good enough to get us through the tournament.
“We played well and I thought we were very aggressive as a team, and I think that made us more confident as the (CWS) progressed.”
John Norwood’s tie-breaking home run in the top of the eighth-inning proved to be the game-winner in Vanderbilt’s 3-2 win over Virginia in the third and deciding game at Omaha’s Ameritrade Park.
Swanson, who played second base last season and will move to shortstop this season, was named the CWS Most Outstanding Player after hitting .323 with three doubles, five runs scored and four stolen bases. He was a PG Second Team All-American last season after hitting .333 with 27 doubles, 22 stolen bases, 34 RBI and 63 runs scored.
THE FOCUS OF THE PLAYERS AND COACHES as the 2014 fall season commenced was on moving forward and getting prepared for the 2015 spring season, which they did by taking a Thanksgiving week trip to the Dominican Republic. Once there, the Commodores played games against local teams but also played a pair against reserves from a couple of Dominican Winter League teams. They went 5-2 on the trip.
“It was incredible,” Swanson said. “Not only did we get to see some of the best talent in the world down there, we also got to see how they go about their business and what they do in comparison to how we do things here. It was just a good overall experience.”
Swanson spoke of what he called “culture shock” and learning how to speak Spanish, although it almost wasn’t necessary. “They communicate through baseball rather than with their words,” he said.
“I’ve always thought those trips sometimes give you more than what you intend to get from them,” Corbin said. “We played a lot of baseball but that may have been secondary to everything else.”
He was speaking of traveling as a group, eating as a group and experiencing cultures that may lack some of the “necessities” that young men from the United States take for granted. It was about talking to people who might not speak your same language but soon realizing you are going to be able to communicate in other ways.
“It’s just a life experience and even though it’s attached to baseball, the life lessons that you get from it and the social skill positives that you get from it far out-weigh anything else,” Corbin said. “Anytime you can use sports to give your kids and opportunity to travel … you’re doing them a service.”
Junior outfielder Rhett Wiseman and redshirt junior first baseman Zander Wiel join Swanson and Reynolds as the Dores’ top returning positon players. Junior right-hander Tyler Ferguson and sophomore righty Hayden Stone return to bolster the pitching staff led by Fulmer and Buehler.
As good as those position players are, if the Dores are to repeat as CWS champion it’s like they’ll do so riding the arms of their pitching staff. Fulmer (7-1, 1.98 ERA), Buehler (12-2, 2.64 ERA) and Ferguson (8-4, 2.69 ERA) look like prime candidates at Friday, Saturday and Sunday starters.
“I just feel good about them as people; they’re kids you can trust in a lot of different ways,” Corbin said. “You look at all those kids on our pitching staff and if you took their grade-point average (together) it’s well over a 3-point-3. You’re talking about kids that do it the right way. They don’t fly by the seat of their pants, they address situations the right way, they’re timely and it just shows up.
“It shows up on the field, it shows up statistically but underneath that there is a ‘care’ level that exists that is not always seen, and that’s what I care about the most.”
All of those players with the exception of Ferguson were active in Perfect Game events during their high school years. Fulmer, Wiseman and Buehler were all at the 2011 PG National Showcase and Fulmer and Wiseman played at the 2011 PG All-American Classic. Redshirt freshman right-hander Jordan Sheffield was a 2012 PG All-American.
Swanson, who is from Marietta, Ga., played in 10 PG WWBA and PG BCS tournaments with the East Cobb Astros and Yankees and feels like those experiences gave him a good feel for what to expect at the college level.
“That prepared me 100 percent, especially when I was playing for the East Cobb Yankees my last two years of high school,” Swanson said. “Everything was just very professionally done; the coaches are incredible. It set me up as far as knowing what to expect and learning how to get into a routine.
“I’ve been used to playing a lot of games every year ever since I started playing baseball so that’s never been an issue, but as far as the mentality and the routines, the summer ball was definitely a huge help.”
AS MUCH AS PLAYING SUMMER BALL for East Cobb Baseball may have helped Swanson, it’s a safe bet that his three years playing for Corbin, top coaching assistants Scott Brown and Travis Jewett, and the rest of the Vanderbilt staff have been even more helpful.
Swanson calls them “unbelievable father-figures”; “great friends” and “family members.” In fact, being given the opportunity to experience Vanderbilt University in its entirety is something he will be forever grateful for.
“It’s made me a much better person, honestly,” he said. “The academics are definitely rigorous and you have to prepare and study for all your different classes, and then you’re surrounded by a bunch of kids that have dreams and passions, as well, and that can fuel you.
“When you surround yourself with successful people and you see their traits and characteristics … you start to become more like them, and I feel like this whole Vanderbilt community does that.”
Vanderbilt opens the defense of its 2014 national championship when it hosts a three-game non-conference series with Santa Clara Feb. 13-15. The SEC campaign begins with a three-game set against Arkansas March 13-15, also in Nashville.
“I think they have a good focus and I think they’re more understanding,” Corbin said. “Those experiences have helped them and if they’re a junior in the program they’ve been on some very good teams. I think their focus is good and our focal point is pretty simple.
“They just live in the day and are very content with where they are right now, and they’re just trying to make small growths to get better personally and as a team.”
Added Swanson: “Our goal is just to be the best that we can be as a unit, and every year we try to be one of the best college baseball teams to have ever existed. That’s just kind of our mentality and what we’re focused on, and we’re just trying to get better as a whole unit.”
The seniors, juniors and sophomores on this year’s Commodores’ team may not talk about it much, but they will always be able to hold the 2014 season close to their hearts. It was the spring when everything came together, when the right combination of momentum and confidence were joined and a national championship was won.
“It was pretty spectacular, looking from where we were at in the middle of the year to where we (finished) at the end of the year,” Swanson said. “It was special, just because we got to do it with one another; it wasn’t an individual thing. We were able to all do it together which was the most special and magical part of it all.”