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VOL. 41 | NO. 24 | Friday, June 16, 2017

Vanderbilt’s toughest year comes up short

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Vanderbilt Head Coach Tim Corbin looks over his shoulder at the just-unveiled plaque honoring pitcher Donny Everett during the playing of the National Anthem prior to his team’s April 15 against Florida. Everett, a freshman pitcher, drowned on June 2, 2016, as the Commodores were preparing for NCAA Tournament play.

-- Photo By Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire Via Ap Images

When the Vanderbilt baseball team finished its season one step short of its goal – the College World Series – there was a sense of profound disappointment for the Commodores. That’s to be expected. The last pitch of any season is cause for sadness if you’re a committed baseball program that doesn’t achieve the ultimate goal.

But this is a different team and this was a different season for Vanderbilt. The Commodores missed Donny Everett. And it showed.

Everett, a freshman pitcher for the Commodores, drowned on June 2, 2016, a day before Vanderbilt was scheduled to play its first NCAA Tournament game. The Commodores played that series in a fog, emotionally spent by the loss of a teammate coach Tim Corbin called “a fun-loving teddy bear.”

The grief carried through the offseason and into this year. Coaches and players had a hard time letting go.

That’s why Vanderbilt’s postseason surge was so impressive. In mid-May, the Commodores were 30-21 and 13-13 in the SEC. When they were eliminated from the SEC Tournament with an 11-inning loss to South Carolina, there was little reason for optimism.

But that’s when things finally came together. Vanderbilt won the regional, beating host Clemson 8-0 in the clinching game to advance to the Super Regional at top-seeded Oregon State.

The victory over Clemson came 366 days after Everett’s death, a point that was not lost on Corbin.

“I want success for them in a large way for a myriad of reasons, especially with the circumstances they’ve been involved in over the course of the year,” Corbin says.

“A year ago, I can tell you that at this time it might have been the most difficult segment of life for a lot of these young kids.

“I just like that they were able to partake in something that’s celebratory and celebrate Donny and his family and each other through successes.”

This is classic Corbin. Nobody took Everett’s death harder than him. To Corbin, a college baseball team is a family. He felt like he had lost a son.

But Corbin and his players found a way to move on. This season was cathartic. It was an opportunity to honor Everett’s memory by playing a game he loved.

“Through the year, you can see gradually how they’ve been able to free themselves up a little bit and they’ve grown,” Corbin points out.

“I won’t use the word ‘adversity’ because I know a lot of coaches and teams talk about, ‘We’ve gone through a lot of adversity.’

“You have to go through adversity if you’re going to be a good team. That’s all there is to it. There’s no such thing as ‘non-adversity.’”

Vanderbilt’s season ended Saturday in Corvallis, Oregon, where the Commodores were beaten for the second time by No. 1-ranked Oregon State. Vanderbilt was simply overmatched. The Beavers had superior pitching and a lineup loaded with quality hitters.

On paper, this was not one of Corbin’s better teams in recent years. There were gaps in his batting order. Although Kyle Wright and Patrick Raby were quality starters, the pitching staff did not have the customary talent and depth. Part of that, of course, was due to the absence of Everett, who had a 100 mph fastball and almost limitless potential.

Even so, this Vanderbilt team proved resilient. It is the seventh time since Corbin arrived in Nashville that the Commodores reached the baseball version of the Sweet 16. It wasn’t always pretty, but they kept competing. In short, the players followed the lead of their coach.

Staying the course is a way of life for Corbin. He is the ultimate creature of habit. He finds comfort in his daily routine. Unless the Commodores are on the road, he arrives at his office adjacent to Hawkins Field at the same time every morning. He and his wife Maggie have a rotation of local restaurants for dinner.

Last summer, I ranked the state’s top 25 college coaches – in all sports – for The Ledger. I placed Corbin at No. 1. While I would certainly adjust some of the rankings based on what has transpired over the last 12 months (Butch Jones and Tubby Smith have taken tumbles while Kermit Davis and Bryce Drew have advanced), I wouldn’t move Corbin. He’s still No. 1 in my book.

Corbin says he believes one of the keys to success is sweating the small stuff. And to him, it’s all small stuff.

Assistant coaches and support personnel have charts for everything – even a mid-week practice. Every game is videotaped and then edited so the idle seconds between pitches is eliminated. That way, a three-hour game is condensed to less than 30 minutes for Corbin’s review.

To sign scholarship papers with the Vanderbilt baseball program is to commit to doing everything by Corbin’s rules. Instead of beginning with the finer points of the game like batting stance or taking a lead off first base, new arrivals are taught the proper technique to making up a bed. Yes, that’s a prerequisite for being a Commodore.

Point of reference: Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden famously began his first practice every season by instructing his players on the proper way to tie their shoes. Corbin doesn’t even let his Commodores get to the field before they are schooled on a necessary morning ritual.

And it works. Vanderbilt now is one of the elite programs in college baseball. The Commodores won the College World Series in 2014 and played in the final series the following year. It’s only a matter of time before they make it back to Omaha.

All of which means the current product is quite different than the one Corbin inherited in the summer of 2002.

Corbin’s recollection of his first home game as Vanderbilt coach is quite telling. This was in the late winter of 2003, and the opponent was East Tennessee State. He remembers his wife coming into the stadium and noting that there were only a couple of dozen people in the stands.

Having previously been at Clemson where even pre-conference games in raw weather drew nice crowds, Maggie assumed she had misread the starting time. He told her the game was starting in five minutes or so.

Her response: “Oh my God, what did we do? Why did we come here?”

All these years later, Tim Corbin has found a home. He has made a lot of memories. And he’ll never forget Donny Everett.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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