(Note: This article is
part of a series, by Jeff Dahn, that highlights specific collegiate baseball
programs going into the 2011 season. To
view the articles on other schools in this series please click here.)
Shawon Dunston Jr. was one of more heavily recruited young baseball players in the high school class of 2011. The son of a former Major Leaguer, he is enjoying life growing up in the San Francisco Bay area of Northern California.
And when it came to making the decision as to where he would attend college, he decided Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., was where he wanted to be. After making the decision, he couldn’t sign his national letter of intent for several days until he got the final OK from the Vanderbilt admissions office.
Not just anyone is allowed to walk into Vanderbilt’s classrooms, not even the son of a former Major-Leaguer. But it all worked out in the end for the young outfielder.
“I’m a California kid, but I liked the atmosphere in Nashville. I felt like I was at home,” Dunston said after finally getting to sign his LOI. “Coach (Tim) Corbin is a players’ coach, it seems like, and he’s loyal to his players. And I want to play in the SEC. The players here at home … want to go to the Pac-10, but I want to go to the SEC and do something different.
“It’s the academic side of it, as well,” he added. “I’ll get great academics and great sports at Vanderbilt.”
That’s a combination that has been serving Corbin and the Commodore baseball program well since he became head coach before the 2003 season. Vanderbilt is a prestigious private research institution with about 6,500 undergrads that is also home to one of the nation’s emerging collegiate baseball programs.
This is a program that emphasizes learning, in the classroom and on the field. The program scored a perfect Academic Progress Rate (APR) score of 1000 last year.
“We’re proud of having a program that’s demonstrated a reasonable amount of success on the field and in the classroom,” Corbin said. “It’s college baseball. We strive to be balanced in our thinking as to what’s important and what’s not important. The scoreboard has been kind to us at times, but the scoreboard’s not always indicative of what the most important thing is.
“When you choose to work in the field of education, there are a lot of other factors that are important,” he continued. “The university has high standards for these kids and they’re far-reaching – more than trying to get a bunt down or execute the perfect pitch. Like an academic professor, our coaching staff is part of the a mental growing process with these kids.”
Vanderbilt is consistently ranked a top-20 university because of its academic prowess, and Corbin uses that to his advantage on the recruiting trail despite his recruits have to face tough admission standards.
“I only see it as a positive factor,” he said. “It’s really what we were selling when we first started this back in 2003. We were pointing toward the university and what it stood for more than anything else. Our program at the time had some name recognition (because) we’re in the SEC, but maybe not the winning tradition that most other people in our conference had.”
So Corbin and his staff – which includes associate head coach Derek Johnson, assistant coach Josh Holliday and volunteer assistant Larry Day – decided to promote Vanderbilt’s strength – the education the school offers – and began enticing some of the best and brightest players to Nashville.
“We get some kids that we can work with that are motivated on both ends, academically and athletically, and from that you start to develop a culture in your program,” Corbin said.
It was that culture that appeals to high school recruits like Dunston Jr. and has made Vanderbilt prominent on the scene.
The Commodores are coming off a 2010 season in which they advanced to the second Super Regional in program history. They came within two runs of advancing to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., after losing to host Florida State, 8-7, in the third game of the three-game series.
Vanderbilt had reached the Super Regional in Tallahassee, Fla., by winning its NCAA Regional in Louisville, Ky. The Commodores finished the 2010 campaign with an overall mark of 46-20, the third time in four years they had won at least 41 games.
“It went well and I thought we had a great year,” Corbin said. “We were short of going to Omaha, but that’s difficult to do. That’s every program’s goal (and) we took a step in the right direction. I thought we competed very well on the national scale. We extended ourselves to Super Regional play but came up short in a very tough environment at Florida State.”
Six players from that team were selected in the 2010 MLB Amateur Draft. Vanderbilt has had five 1st round draft picks since 2007, the most in the country, and 49 players have been drafted since 2003.
Corbin welcomed a talented group of returning players and a top-12 nationally ranked recruiting class into the 2010 fall season. The Commodores return nine position players who appeared in at least 42 games last spring, including their five leading hitters.
Sophomore shortstop Anthony Gomez returns after leading the team in hitting last season at .379 with 69 singles among his 81 hits. Also returning are standout junior third baseman Jason Esposito (.359, 12 HRs, 64 RBIs, 31 SBs), senior catcher Curt Casali (.309, 8 HRs, 42 RBIs), junior first baseman Aaron Westlake (.308, 66 runs, 14 HRs, 61 RBIs) and sophomore outfielder Conner Harrell (.300).
Three weekend starters also return: junior right-hander Sonny Gray (10-5, 3.48 ERA, 113 SOs, 108.2 innings); senior right-hander Taylor Hill (6-5, 4.46 ERA); and junior right-hander Jack Armstrong (7-4, 4.71).
Perfect Game projects Gray to be drafted in the first round as the No. 12 overall pick in the 2011 Draft. Armstrong and Esposito are also projected as first-rounders (Nos. 24 and 25 overall) and junior left-handed reliever Grayson Garvin is projected as a high second-rounder.
It’s a team that has played a lot of baseball together.
“Mental experience is a positive thing, and to take part in thousands of college innings adds to the likelihood of success,” Corbin said. “How much success is dictated by the future investment level of the group collectively. We‘ve got that. We’ve got a lot of innings returning on the field and mound.”
Almost every player on Vanderbilt’s 2011 roster participated in Perfect Game events while in high school, and three – Armstrong, Gray and freshman infielder/outfielder Conrad Gregor – were Aflac All-Americans.
“The ability of schools throughout our country to attract certain kids … is more widespread because they have more access to them,” Corbin said. “They can see them if they go to one site, and (there are) so many opportunities for kids. It enables them to get out in front of professional scouts and college coaches and it gives them greater opportunity to see other schools then just what exists in their state or 100 miles from their hometown.”
Corbin was head coach at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., from 1988 through 1993 and was on the staff at Clemson University from 1994 through 2002.
The Commodores had difficulty finding any traction in Corbin’s first season in 2003, the first in 24 years without longtime coach Roy Mewbourne at the helm. Vanderbilt finished 27-28 in ’03, but there were signs the program would turnaround.
The next season, Vanderbilt made its firsts appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 1980 and promptly won the Charlottesville, Va., Regional title. That enabled it to advance to its first Super Regional appearance in school history. It finished the season with a school record 45 wins (against 19 losses) and had almost overnight established itself as a program to be reckoned with.
Vanderbilt missed out on the postseason in 2005 (34-21 overall record) but returned in 2006 (38-27) when it was eliminated in a Regional Final.
The Commodores enjoyed the most successful season in their history in 2007 when they won a school record 54 games and were ranked No. 1 in the country for 13 of 15 weeks during the regular season. They swept both the SEC regular season and SEC Tournament championships and hosted an NCAA Regional as the No. 1 National Seed.
The dream of a trip to the CWS came up short, however, when they were eliminated by Michigan in the Regional Finals.
The star of that team was junior left-hander David Price, who was named the national player of the year and who the Tampa Bay Rays made the No. 1 overall selection in the 2007 Draft. He started the 2010 All-Star game for the American League and finished second in the AL Cy Young Award balloting.
The Commodores returned to the NCAA Regionals for the third and fourth straight times in 2008 and ’09, and finished with overall records of 41-22 and 37-27.
The Vanderbilt baseball program is today a top-rung program. The right combination of stellar student-athletes and exceptional guidance by the coaching staff has put the Commodores on par with the nation’s best.
“What I’m most proud of is our coaches – I love them,” Corbin said. “The players trust the coaches – they teach with care and do it without an ego. It’s not a stroke-fest for them. The players and myself learn a great deal from them – they make the program go.
“We just like the environment that we have … very college-oriented and very teaching-oriented. We (coaches) all understand that we are very fortunate to have a job in college athletics at a fine institution (and) we don’t take it for granted.”
What follows is a list of players on the 2011 Vanderbilt roster who participated in Perfect Game events while in high school. Click on the player’s name to view his complete Perfect Game profile.
Jack Armstrong – Aflac AA Classic/PG National/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Curt Casali – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Will Clinard – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Jason Esposito – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Drew Fann – PG AC Top Prospect Showcase
Grayson Garvin – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Anthony Gomez – PG World/PG National/PG WWBA
Nate Gonzalez – PG National/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Sonny Gray – Aflac AA Classic/PG National/PG WWBA
Conrad Gregor – Aflac AA Classic/PG National/PG WWBA
Robert Hansen – PG WWBA
Connor Harrell – PG National/PG WWBA
Taylor Hill – PG WWBA
Bryan Johns – PG WWBA
Tony Kemp – PG WWBA
Keenan KKolinsky – PG WWBA
Josh Lee – PG WWBA/PG BCS
Joe Loftus – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Jack Lupo – PG WWBA
Joel McKeithan – PG National/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Navery Moore – PG WWBA
Spencer Navin – PG National/PG National Pre-Draft/
T.J. Pecoraro – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Riley Reynolds – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Steven Rice – PG National Underclass/PG WWBA
Sam Selman – PG WWBA
Aaron Westlake – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Corey Williams – PG National/PG National Underclass/ PG WWBA
Mike Yastrzemski – PG WWBA
Kevin Ziomek – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
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