Young players pace Vandy

Published 7:00 am Saturday, June 28, 2014

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin figured last year was his baseball program’s best chance to win its first national championship.

It was the 2014 team that got the job done, starting four sophomores and two freshmen in the everyday lineup and relying on a young pitching staff.

“There was never a crack in our strong foundation,” Corbin said Thursday. “This group grew together. They were consumed with one another the last month and a half. We started off the SEC 7-8 and having played three series at home. We were about to go through the gauntlet and I remember telling my coaches and my wife that I was concerned. The next thing you know, we finish the SEC 11-4, we started winning some close games and our pitching really started to grow.”

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The Commodores finished 51-21 after beating Virginia in a three-game College World Series finals. They won the school’s first national championship in a men’s sport and joined LSU (six), South Carolina (two) and Georgia (one) as Southeastern Conference teams to win baseball titles.

The contributions seemed to come from everyone.

Left fielder Bryan Reynolds was a freshman All-American after leading the team with a .338 batting average and 54 RBIs. Second baseman Dansby Swanson, limited to 11 games as a freshman because of injuries, batted .333 and was named the CWS Most Outstanding Player. Third baseman Tyler Campbell, a sophomore who came to Omaha with 15 at-bats in 14 games, was the feel-good story of the CWS. He made the all-tournament team after taking over for Xavier Turner, who was ruled ineligible last Friday for violating NCAA rules.

Junior center fielder John Norwood, a backup his first two years in the program, hit his third homer of the season, and Vanderbilt’s first since May 16, to break an eighth-inning tie in Wednesday’s 3-2, title-clinching win.

Sophomores Carson Fulmer and Walker Buehler and freshmen Hayden Stone and John Kilichowski turned in clutch pitching performances along with junior Adam Ravenelle.

“I looked back last year, my first day here, and I knew that I got into something very, very special,” Fulmer said. “I look at all my teammates as my brothers. I look at coach, our pitching coach, I look at them as father figures. Words can’t describe this experience. It’s something that we’ve always dreamed of doing as a team, and we finally accomplished it.”

Last year’s team featured the core of the 2011 squad that was Vanderbilt’s first to make the CWS, including SEC player of the year Tony Kemp and Tyler Beede, who won a school-record 14 games. The ‘13 Commodores were ranked No. 2 in the nation in the preseason and won their first 13 games. They won an SEC-record 26 conference games and earned the No. 2 national seed for the NCAA tournament. They survived an elimination game in regionals but were swept by Louisville in super regionals.

“Last year,” Corbin said, “we were perfect for a long period of time and then at the end of the year we faltered.”

The 2014 Commodores never lost more than two games in a row, continuing a streak that started two years ago. For Corbin, the championship came in his 12th year as head coach. He had been Jack Leggett’s right-hand man at Clemson from 1994-2002 and didn’t know for sure what he was getting into when he took over a program that hadn’t finished above .500 in the SEC since 1980.

“I can remember the first game we played: East Tennessee State, and it was raining, 40 degrees, no one up in the stands,” Corbin said. “My wife got there and she said, ‘I thought the game started at 4 o’clock.’ I said it does. She said there’s no one here. I said that’s right, there’s no one here. She goes, ‘You want to go back to Clemson?’ She was joking, but it was just different.”

Three of Corbin’s recruiting classes since 2005 have been rated best in the nation, and nine of his players have been drafted in the first round, with Beede the latest.

“Certainly had visions of this someday,” Corbin said, “but they were so far distant at certain times.”