The "smart school" of the SEC has never captured a men's national championship—even though its baseball team just set a record
This should be the year that the Vanderbilt University baseball team finally breaks through and reaches its first College World Series. It just set an SEC record with 12 players drafted to the major leagues, and it is among the top six in the country in both team batting average and team ERA. But you'd still be hard-pressed to find a Vanderbilt fan who'd wager that this squad is going to succeed. This, after all, is Vanderbilt, the school known to outsiders as the smart school of the SEC, but known to anguished insiders as the school that has just one NCAA title to its credit—in women's bowling—to go along with a rich history of unfulfilled athletic hopes. And this legacy of disappointment is perhaps best embodied by the recent fortunes of the baseball team.
Yes, the team just sailed through the first round of the NCAA tournament, winning three games by a combined score of 26-3. And its dominance in these outings, buoyed by the pitching of first-round picks Sonny Gray and Grayson Garvin, helped justify Vanderbilt's No. 6 overall seed in the tournament. But there's a history to speak of, one that makes the inclusion of the qualifier "Yes, but ..." necessary to any yarn about Vanderbilt success.
In 2007 the Commodores were led by current-Tampa Bay Rays star pitcher David Price, who would go on to win the Golden Spikes Award as the nation's best player and be selected first overall in the draft. Riding Price's left arm, Vanderbilt rose to No. 1 in the rankings for the first time in the program's history and earned the overall top seed in the NCAA tournament. And then it became the first top seed to ever lose in the first round of the tournament when—and you Vandy fans get a bonus if you remember this guy's name—Michigan pinch-hitter Alan Oaks hit a game-winning home run in extra innings off Price, who had previously been undefeated (11-0). Oaks, for his part, had come into that situation hitting .188 for the season with eight strikeouts in his last eight at-bats.
Giving up the go-ahead run to Oaks was galling, but the Commodores weren't quite done toying with the hopes of their fans. In the bottom of the 10th inning, third baseman Pedro Alvarez cracked a fly ball to deep center field, and every Vanderbilt fan temporarily believed that Price had been avenged. Undone by Alan Oaks? Nonsense. Here was Vanderbilt's second best player Alvarez, who was drafted No. 2 overall in 2008 and plays for the Pirates, picking up his teammate. Alan Oaks would not be the hero!
Not in the bottom of the 10th inning, anyway; that mantle belonged to Michigan's Derek VanBuskirk, who leapt at the wall and gloved Alvarez's bid for a tying homerun. Alan Oaks and Derek VanBuskirk. They sound like made-up names, the kind you stammer out under the suspicious gaze of border patrol agents. But they were very real when it mattered most, quashing Vanderbilt's best hopes to date for a national title in a men's sport—the men's sport, it should be noted, where they've proven themselves the most capable of competing on a national level.
The school's football team is a veritable doormat in the SEC, failing to win a bowl game between 1955 and 2008 or to even make one between 1982 and 2008. The idea that Vanderbilt could win a BCS Championship in football is not even entertained by the most deluded undergraduate pot enthusiasts. The basketball team is usually competitive, but early exits from the NCAA tournament have become standard, with the higher-seeded Commodores losing in the first round to the lower seeds of Richmond, Murray State, and Siena in their last three tournament appearances. The idea that the team could win out in March Madness is more plausible than winning a national championship in football, but those first-round defeats have caused many fans to distrust the team's regular-season successes. And that sentiment of resignation—"Oh, typical Vandy"—has infected fans' attitudes towards the baseball team, too. What makes this team all the more frustrating is that it genuinely seems like the one most capable of bringing the school its missing championship.
Vanderbilt is the only Division 1 school without an athletic department, which then-Chancellor Gordon Gee (currently of Ohio State) disbanded in 2003 in a revolutionary move to help integrate student-athletes back into student life. It's hard to argue with the results, as seven of the school's 16 athletic teams were ranked in the Top 25 at one point in February 2007: men's baseball and basketball, and women's basketball, golf, bowling, tennis, and lacrosse. But being in the mix is far removed from actually winning an NCAA title.
There's no shame to being an athletic bottom-feeder in the SEC, not when you consider the conference has produced the last five national champions in football (Auburn, Alabama, Florida, LSU and Florida), the last two in baseball (South Carolina and LSU), and boasts the winningest basketball program in NCAA history (Kentucky). Somebody has to be the SEC equivalent of catfish among this lot, and it's no coincidence that it's the school with the most rigorous academic standards in the conference. And yet Vanderbilt has still produced some great athletic talent in men and women's sports, as evidenced by the record-setting 12 baseball players who were just drafted this week.
Coach Tim Corbin's team has now made the NCAA tournament in seven of his nine seasons at the helm, after previously missing the tournament every year between 1981 and 2003. This weekend the program is hosting the super regionals for the first time. But can it finally fulfill its potential? Can it beat Oregon State in a best of three series—games are on the ESPN network of channels—and advance to the College World Series for the first time? And will the team be satisfied at that point, content with being one of the nation's best eight college baseball teams? Or can they win it all and make it three years in a row that the NCAA baseball champion hailed from the SEC? You never hear Vanderbilt mentioned in the same breath as athletic powerhouses such as Florida, LSU and Alabama, but perhaps that's about to change. Finally. Or maybe the team will simply lose on a home run to a guy who struck out in his previous eight at-bats.
Sorry to say, but that would be typical Vandy.
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