NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Vanderbilt Commodores are two wins away from returning to the College World Series and the chance to bookend the coronavirus pandemic with national championships.
But this isn’t the same team that walked off the field in Omaha in 2019 as national champs.
“This team, it has to wear the badge of being a Vanderbilt team, obviously, and it’s applied to winning in ’19, but it’s not the same group of kids,” coach Tim Corbin said Wednesday. “It’s just a completely different group of guys who wear the same colors.”
Not only did Vanderbilt go 59-12 that season to set the Southeastern Conference record for wins, the Commodores beat Michigan for their second national championship since 2014.
Corbin noted his 2019 team had several players who returned to play that season, decisions motivated by losing a teammate a day before the 2016 regional. Star freshman pitcher Donny Everett drowned during a fishing trip, and the Commodores’ promising season ended in two quick losses.
That team also went through losing a super regional to Oregon State on the road in 2017, then lost the 2018 super regional on their own field in 2018. Then they won both the SEC regular season title and league tournament in 2019.
“What you were doing is collecting a bunch of players that had played in the college environment, regionals, super regionals, for a long period of time,” Corbin said. “And what ends up happening is there’s a lot of freedom that that moves to a player who’s been able to do that.”
Now Vanderbilt is the No. 4 overall seed with only eight players from the 2019 championship team. This group is led by junior pitcher Kumar Rocker, the Most Outstanding Player in Omaha. The right-hander is second nationally with an SEC-best 12 wins this season, two away from a school record.
“Kumar is 24 months removed from that moment, so he’s different,” Corbin said.
First baseman Dominic Keegan, who played 17 games as a freshman in 2019, says this roster obviously is very young.
“I’m a junior and I didn’t really get to play and experience this my freshman year,” Keegan said. “So, yeah, I think we’re just a lot younger and a lot more inexperienced. But, you know, we’re going through every experience together. So it’s been special for us.”
Isaiah Thomas started six of 21 games he played as a freshman, but the right-fielder’s biggest hit of his career came early Monday morning with a grand slam in the 11th inning to clinch the regional. Keegan said one key was learning a freshmen, watching how the upperclassmen handled each day.
“That’s kind of just how the ways of being an athlete in this program gets passed down,” Keegan said. “I learn from them, and it’s my job now to pass on what I’ve learned to the younger guys in the program.”
These young Commodores feature right-hander Jack Leiter, whose 146 strikeouts lead the nation, and freshman Enrique Bradfield Jr., who has a nation’s best 46 stolen bases. He also ranked sixth in the SEC hitting .359 and became the first Vanderbilt player named the SEC freshman of the year since 2011.
Bradfield, who stole four bases in the regional clincher over Georgia Tech, said they’ve trained for these moments.
“It’s just about enjoying the game and having fun together, playing smart and playing hard,” Bradfield said.
The teams playing Vanderbilt see only the defending champs who just won the program’s 10th regional title. The Commodores host East Carolina starting Friday morning in their fourth consecutive super regionals, the third straight as host.
East Carolina coach Cliff Godwin, who once worked as director of baseball operations at Vanderbilt under Corbin, knows all about the Southeastern Conference. He also was in Omaha when Vanderbilt won in 2019.
His Pirates are the 13th overall seed, and this is their third super regional since 2016 after winning the Greenville Regional.
“I do get sick of hearing about the SEC because I’ve coached in the SEC twice, I’ve been Omaha twice in a SEC program,” Godwin said. “So we’re not a Little League program and we’re pretty good. And we’ll be ready to go on Friday.”