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VOL. 46 | NO. 22 | Friday, June 3, 2022

Commodores embrace rare NCAA postseason road trip

Kolwyck: ‘We’re just excited to keep playing ball.’

By Tom Wood

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Vanderbilt baseball players had a long wait Monday to learn where they would play in the NCAA Tournament, hearing the school called last.

-- Photographs Provided By Vanderbilt Athletics

Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin often talks about how much his team enjoys road trips. That’s a good attitude to have this time of year with a road trip to Oregon looming and the College World Series in Omaha serving as the ultimate destination.

The Commodores – the last school called Monday when the 64-team bracket was announced – had to fly more than 2,300 miles to Corvallis, Oregon, for the June 3-6 regional.

Second-seeded Vanderbilt (36-21) will face third-seeded San Diego (36-18) Friday at 3 p.m. (CT) on ESPNU. Regional host and No. 1 seed Oregon State (44-15) meets No. 4 New Mexico State (24-32) at 6 p.m., on ESPNU.

“You think you’re in but you never know,” Corbin says. “Screwier things have happened. It’s out of your control when you get to a certain point. So we got the opportunity and we’re certainly grateful.

“I think our guys love going on the road, I’ll be honest with you. I think they like playing on the road and I don’t think it would have mattered where we go,” Corbin continues.

Regional winners will advance to the June 10-13 Super Regionals, and the CWS is scheduled for June 17-25.

Senior second baseman Tate Kolwyk and junior pitcher Thomas Schultz agreed with Corbin that going on the road for the NCAA Tournament is a good challenge for a team that struggled for consistency this season.

“We’re just excited to keep playing ball.” says Kolwyck, who batted .256 this season with eight home runs and 83 RBI. “Like Corbs mentioned, it’s a new season so we’re really grateful for the opportunity to keep playing.”

The Southeastern Conference has nine teams in the NCAA tournament, led by SEC regular-season and tournament champion Tennessee (53-7).

In the days leading up to the NCAA selection show, D1baseball.com projections had the Commodores in regionals anywhere from Louisville to Stanford to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to Blacksburg, Virginia, and to Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

“We like going on the road. We like that us versus everyone else mentality,” Schultz (4-2, 3.16 ERA) says of the road challenge. “(We’re a) really tight group. If anything, the pressure’s released. Like Tate said, it’s a whole new season. What’s done in the past is over. All we can do is look ahead. So far, it’s an 0-0 record. We’re looking at San Diego.”

Here’s a deeper look at the Commodores and their quest to return to the CWS, where Vandy finished as national runner-up a year ago after losing to SEC rival Mississippi State 9-0 in the final game of the best-of-3 championship series.

A harder road test

Going into the regular season’s final homestand two weeks ago against LSU, Vanderbilt was projected to host one of the 16 regional tournaments. But that was before the Commodores were swept in the three-game series by a combined 42-15 margin.

Eighth-seeded Vandy went 1-2 in the SEC tournament, eliminated by No. 9 seed Kentucky 10-2 in the losers’ bracket.

Before departing Nashville for the recent SEC tournament in Hoover, Alabama, Corbin elaborated on why his teams enjoy road trips – especially at this time of year.

“Well, the kids enjoy playing on the road. They get fired up for these trips. I mean, there’s good music on the bus. They’re happy; they’re together,” Corbin says.

“If you asked me, ‘what’s your favorite thing to do with your team,’ I would say go play on the road. I just think it’s completely different. I mean, you’re together all the time. You’re eating together. It feels like a family camping trip. Those bus trips are awesome.”

But in what has been one of the toughest seasons under Corbin since he took the Vandy job in 2003, it really hasn’t made a great difference whether the Commodores were playing at home, on the road or at a neutral site.

Going into this weekend’s regional tournament, the Commodores were 21-12 (.636) at Hawkins Field this season while going 12-7 (.631) on the road and 3-2 (.600) in neutral-site games.

Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin addresses the media after learning where his team would play.

Vanderbilt has won two national championships (2014, 2019) under Corbin and finished as national runner-up last year and in 2015 (losing to Virginia). The difference between those two seasons was the overall record, going 40-19 last year before losing to the Bulldogs and 51-21 before falling to the Cavaliers.

Corbin isn’t ready to push any panic buttons, noting the Commodores went 1-2 in the 2015 SEC tourney before reaching the CWS championship series. He says opponents tried to take Vandy out of its game by slowing the pace.

“It was like Virginia in 2015. And I would say in 2015, it was probably noticeable because I think they made a concerted effort to slow the game down and slow us down,” Corbin notes. “But I can’t really sit here and tell you that had everything to do with why the scores were the way they were.

“We do what we have to do. I mean, we can’t control how anyone else plays and I don’t want to waste any energy controlling how anyone else plays,” Corbin adds.

“If you’re able to command pitches and you’re able to get quick outs, then the pace of the game is going to move in a natural progression for you. If you don’t, then it’s going to move in in their direction. So you’ve just gotta do your job in controlling the strike zone and getting outs as defenders. And then offensively, just staying on the field longer … I would like that pace of play.”

Message remains the same

Asked about his team’s mindset for the SEC tournament, Corbin gave candid answers that can also be applied to whatever remains of the season – whether the season ends in this weekend’s regional or with another CWS appearance.

“It’s just moving forward. Whether we beat Arkansas or whether we lost to LSU, my messaging to them doesn’t change from year to year,” Corbin says. “The context may be a little bit different, but in terms of how we proceed after a weekend series, it’s just ‘go forward.’ That’s really all you can do.

“We’ve entered (the SEC) tournament being swept before, and end up in the final (CWS) game. So, it’s just part of the league that you’re in. And once you strap it on at the beginning of the year, you understand that that’s a possibility. So we just move forward.”

Corbin says keeping the players on an even keel is the key to dealing with adversity – especially in the postseason.

“Just trying to regroup and stay steady. I mean, I think it’s a centering process of once you move from one game to the next,” Corbin points out. “I don’t think it’s really any different. It’s just trying to steady the group as much as possible and identify the areas that you can continue to grow without beating them down.”

Players recover quicker

Asked to expound on the team’s confidence level and a one-game-at-a-time approach, Corbin says players bounce back pretty easily.

“Just looking forward. And that’s really all we can do. I would say they’re a tough bunch. They’ve been bruised before. They’ve been banged on a little bit before. We’ve just had some tough baseball games here the last five weeks, but they’re fine. They’re fine,” Corbin says.

“I mean, they’re 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids. They recover pretty quick – quicker than the coach, let me tell you that.”

Quizzed on why he finds it harder to get over the losses, Corbin responded with a witty, self-effacing and honest appraisal.

“Because I’m, you know, I’m a simpleton. I’m an emotional guy, it’s what I do.,” Corbin says. “You know, I’ve spent 38 years doing this and the day that I don’t give a s--- is the day that I won’t be in this chair.

“I love being here every day. I have a lot of gratitude towards being at Vanderbilt and being able to coach and teach,” Corbin continues. “As far as the guys, I love that they care. And I love that they can bounce back. And I bounce back too. But, yeah, I’m emotional about things and I would rather be that way than be dead. And the day that I’m not, I’ll probably be underneath. So I’m just gonna keep going this way.”

As long as the team’s records don’t go in a downward spiral, the program will be fine. The SEC, after all, is the nation’s toughest baseball conference, with league members having won half of the last 10 national titles.

But the new name, image and likeness rules have leveled the playing field as far as recruiting goes. Attracting top-notch pitchers and position players has been the key to Vandy’s success during the Corbin era, but the full impact of NIL and transfer portal rules is yet to be determined.

Season superlatives

Despite the mediocre record (by Vandy standards), the Commodores are not without players who have major league potential. The team has only three seniors, nine juniors and a graduate player. The rest are sophomores and freshmen who will get better the longer they’re in the program.

Top position players this season are junior right fielder Spencer Jones (.367 average, 9 HR, 49 RBI), senior catcher Dominic Keegan (.363, 12 HR, 58 RBI) and sophomore center fielder Enrique Bradfield Jr. (.315, 5 HR, 35 RBI).

A year after losing All-American pitchers Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker, the Commodores’ staff is led by freshmen Carter Holton (8-3, 3.15 ERA) and Devin Futrell (8-3, 3.77), both left-handers.

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