VU hopes to make Hawkins Field 'Cesar's Palace'

Coach Tim Corbin's young Diamond Dores relied heavily on pitching and defense last year in Corbin's rookie season, but struggled fairly consistently in the area of run production. Senior first baseman Cesar Nicolas talks about why this year's Commodores should be better in that department.

Four short years ago, Cesar Nicolas was a high school senior in Miami, Fla. Through an odd connection between his high school coach and Vanderbilt assistant John Barlowe, Nicolas would graduate and wind up as a raw freshman on the Commodore baseball team.

Today, the Commodores' slugging first baseman is on the cusp of his fourth and final year of wearing the Vanderbilt uniform-- and as the season dawns, he's making all the familiar where-has-the-time-gone noises common to fourth-year players.

"I have a lot of friends who are older than me who were here when I was a freshman and sophomore, and now they come back to visit," Nicolas says. "Just the other weekend, Ulises Cabrera, who was a shortstop when I was a freshman, and I got to talking about how fast it's gone. He couldn't believe that I was already a senior.

"It's gone by really fast, but it's been a great experience along the way."

Coach Tim Corbin's young Diamond Dores relied heavily on pitching and defense last year in Corbin's rookie season, but struggled fairly consistently in the area of run production. But the big stick of Cesar Nicolas is perhaps one of the biggest reasons why things should be better this year in that department.

"Cesar is certainly coming off a good summer in the Cape, where he won the home run hitting contest," Corbin said. "He established himself as one of the better returning power hitters in college baseball. He's gonna help us out a lot."

On a team that is still very young, Nicolas may be Corbin's equivalent of Matt Freije-- the offensive spark that Corbin looks to when it seems no one else is scratching anything out on offense.

"The team counts on me a lot to be a leader," Nicolas says. "A lot of younger guys feel that they look up to me, as well as the coaches."

Last summer in the prestigious Cape Cod League, where many of the nation's finest college players refine their skills through the year's hottest months, Nicolas racked up honor after honor for the Orleans Cardinals. He was named to the league's All-Star team, and in helping the Cardinals win the league championship, he was named the playoffs' Most Valuable Player.

"It was a great experience overall, a great learning experience," Nicolas says. "That was a huge honor for me. To be recognized as the MVP of something like that, in a situation where there are so many great players, was a great honor."

But Nicolas said the individual honors paled in comparison to his team's championship in the league playoffs-- an experience that only served to give him a thirst for more.

"It was awesome, because for me, it was my first championship at any level. To finally get to experience what it's like to win a championship just gives you the drive and motivation to want to feel that again."

Nicolas' first two years with Commodore baseball were spent under the tutelage of departed coach Roy Mewbourne. When Corbin was brought on after the 2002 season, Nicolas and the other upperclassmen wondered what would happen with the fiery Clemson assistant on board as the new skipper.

They need not have worried. Nicolas raves today about Corbin's boundless energy, his attention to detail, and his drive to forge a ragtag bunch of diamondmen into a force in the Southeastern Conference.

"Coach Corbin has been a great addition to this university," Nicolas said. "He's brought a great deal of energy and a new perspective on things. He's just a winner-- that's the only thing you can say. Everything he does is geared toward winning, and getting the most out of our potential.

"He has a great relationship with all his players too, which is something that's not real common among coaches.

"We do a lot of teambuilding things, all year round. Coach showed us the movie, 'Miracle'. We have a lot of days in the fall when we've had some pretty tough workouts. We do those things to build character and team unity. We also have a thing called the Omaha Challenge, a four-day competition where we're divided up into four different teams.

"Our forte this year is still gonna be pitching and defense. Anybody will tell you that the way to win ball games is to have good pitching and good defense. We'll still rely on that as much as possible. But we hope to provide more runs to relieve some of the tension."

A host of newcomers from Corbin's first real recruiting class should bolster the hitting. But Nicolas said the most encouraging sign is the progress made in the off-season by a number of returning players.

"All the returning guys have just improved so much mentally and physically, and are taking smarter approaches toward the game. It's that maturation that should allow us to be a better hitting team. Having confidence in your ability to perform offensively is one of the most important things to be successful."

For Nicolas, the senior season finally arrives on with Friday's opener vs. Southern Illinois (4 p.m., Hawkins Field). Last year the goal was simple-- to slip the SEC Tournament, a goal the Commodores memorably achieved on the last day of the regular season.

This year? The Holy Grail would be making it to an NCAA regional tournament in June. Whether Vandy's boys of summer can achieve that lofty dream will largely depend on how effectively Nicolas and his mates can swing the bats.

Has Nicolas set any personal goals for himself in his final season?

"The only goal I've set for myself is to be the best leader for this team that I can be," he says.

"Wins are really the most important thing-- if you take care of that, the stats and numbers will just kind of fall in line."

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