Student-athlete: The Champions

Video by Zack Eagles

In the magical run to a national championship, Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin said he was often asked when he first realized the 2019 edition of the Vandy Boys could be something special.

His answer reveals all you need to know about the program he has built over 17 years in Nashville. It had nothing to do with his pitchers’ fastballs and changeups, nothing to do with the launch angles and exit velocities of his hitters.

When he realized this team could be something special, Corbin said, he was nowhere near Hawkins Field. He was in Boston, celebrating Christmas with his family, when he received a report on his team’s academic progress in the fall semester. Across the board, the grades were excellent; 16 players had earned grade-point averages above 3.0. No crisis, no drama. He thought about how that maturity and consistency had been there all fall, a collection of supremely talented but unselfish young men from 19 states “modeling the behaviors you would want represented in your own family” on and off the field.

He celebrated Christmas knowing this team had a chance to do great things.

Corbin and team at CWS

And then they went out and did it. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how a team could accomplish more. They won the SEC regular season and tournament championships. They won NCAA Regional and Super Regional tournaments at Hawkins Field. They won the College World Series in Omaha.

And they did it in dominating fashion, setting an SEC record with 59 wins and setting program records in home runs, RBIs and strikeouts. Corbin was named SEC and National Coach of the Year. Right fielder JJ Bleday was named SEC Player of the Year after leading the country with 27 home runs, while Austin Martin (third base), Philip Clarke (catcher) and Tyler Brown (pitcher) were named first-team All-SEC. Kumar Rocker threw a no-hitter in the Super Regional against Duke and was named national Freshman of the Year by Baseball America. Thirteen Commodores were selected in the Major League Baseball draft, tying an SEC record, and when Bleday was taken with the fourth overall pick by the Miami Marlins, he became the ninth Vanderbilt player to be drafted in the top 10 in the Corbin era. Thirteen players earned academic All-SEC recognition.

Baseball team after scoring

In so many respects, it was the stuff of dreams.

But for Corbin and the seven seniors on this team, it began with a nightmare.

It was June 2, 2016, a day before Vanderbilt was set to host NCAA regional competition at Hawkins Field. Freshman pitcher Donny Everett, a flame-throwing pitcher from Clarksville, Tennessee, went fishing with a few teammates to relax and recharge for the post-season. As Commodore fans know too well, Everett never returned from that outing, drowning in Lake Normandy. Playing with heavy hearts, the Commodores were quickly eliminated from that tournament. Everett’s number 41 was painted on the Hawkins Field turf, and over the next three seasons, his memory never left the hearts of his teammates. When the team accepted its College World Series championship trophy and posed for celebratory photos on the field at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, they made sure Everett’s parents, Teddy and Susan, were right in the middle of it all. They were just as much a part of the team, senior shortstop Ethan Paul said afterward, as any of the players.

“Those seven seniors had the toughest time of their lives in 2016 losing a teammate,” Corbin said. “And then (three) years later to come back to school to finish their degrees and be leaders of a program and go from devastation to celebration, I give them tons of credit. You don’t always get what you want in life, and to watch this situation come full-circle for them is particularly gratifying.”

The senior leadership of this Commodore team was unusual, after all. In baseball, players are draft-eligible after their junior seasons (or even after their sophomore seasons if they are 21 years old). Elite programs such as Vanderbilt, stocked with professional prospects, hardly ever have any substantial group of seniors remaining. Sticking around to win a title in their classmate’s memory was one motivating factor. But Paul said there was even more to it than that, a testament to the tight-knit culture Corbin has built.

Champions group shot

“Our number one reason to come back to school wasn’t to have this outlandish season or anything like that,” he said. “I think that we all wanted to just be a part of something special. It’s great to win a national championship, it’s great to do all those things, but the program means so much more to us than just winning. There’s such a bond with each other and we do all these things off the field and we celebrate each other so well. I’m happy that we were able to have this moment, and it’s going to be a memory forever, but just being able to share this team and this experience with these guys, we’re friends for life.”

At a celebration for the team after it returned from Omaha, Corbin told a crowd of Commodore fans that this year’s team is connected to each one that has come before it, separate chapters in the same book, each team building upon the next, every player once and forever a Vandy Boy like all the rest.

Philip Clarke, a sophomore catcher from Franklin, Tennessee, said he and his teammates have a deep appreciation for what makes being a part of that tradition so special.

“The student-athlete experience at Vanderbilt is unique,” he said. “The city of Nashville is second to none. The Vanderbilt degree is also second to none. You’re competing in the best conference in the country. Being at the top of those totem poles is not something a lot of people can do.”

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