Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin arranged a private screening of the film "Miracle" back in early February, before it had been released to theaters. He did so in hopes his team, lightly regarded in the SEC, could find inspiration from a ragtag American ice hockey team that upset the Russians in the 1980 Olympics.
Something must have clicked. Last weekend, with a three-game sweep of Kentucky, Corbin's Commodores put an exclamation point on the most successful regular season in school history, and made an irrefutable case for post-season bids to the SEC and NCAA tournaments.
Before giddy Commodore fans head south to Hoover, Ala. Wednesday to prepare for the excitement of Vandy's second consecutive trip to the SEC Tournament, they might do well to sit back and bask in the glow of a regular season that exceeded all expectations-- even those of Tim Corbin.
"Breaking the school record for wins was not something that we set out to do," Corbin said last week.
But Vandy's 39 wins eclipsed not only the school record for wins in a regular season (35), but wins in a season including the postseason (37). The 16 SEC wins were also the most ever, and the .533 winning percentage in the SEC was the best in 15 seasons.
Along the way to setting a new school record for hits in a regular season (96), sophomore second baseman Warner Jones led the league in hitting, finishing with a .425 average. Jones also led the SEC in slugging percentage (.625) and doubles (25), while Ryan Klosterman led the league in triples (7).
A pair of (gasp) junior college transfers joined the squad in the fall, and both made immediate impact. Lightning-quick center fielder Antoan Richardson led the league in stolen bases (30) and was only caught thrice all season. Meanwhile ace reliever Ryan Rote's 11 saves were second in the SEC and good for a new team record.
While the hitting occasionally failed to materialize, Vandy got it done by relying on Corbin's twin cornerstones, pitching and great defense. The Commodores finished atop in the conference in team ERA (3.24) and led the league in fielding with a .978 percentage.
A year ago it was largely failures in midweek and non-conference series that kept Vandy from reaching an NCAA Regional. This year? The Dores went an astounding 23-2 in non-conference play.
Within the SEC Vanderbilt won five of ten series and swept three conference foes, including SEC co-champ Georgia early in the season. The series win in Knoxville was especially sweet, since it was Vandy's first there since 1992. After taking five of the last six games from Tennessee, the Commodores finally seem to have turned the tables on their bitter cross-state rivals.
It was a year in which the Hawkins Field crowd seemed to sense that something special was happening. Spurred on by an innovative series of ticket promotions, the crowds seemed to appreciate the tone set by Corbin's energy and responded in kind. And it seemed to help-- the Dores finished a commanding 28-5 at the Hawk.
But perhaps most significant is the way the Commodores demonstrated their character by bouncing back from adversity. After getting swept by Florida in Gainesville the last weekend in April, Vandy's record had slipped to 27-13. With their momentum broken and 12 tough SEC games still remaining, any plans the Dores might have had for the postseason were in serious jeopardy.
How would the Diamond Dores respond? Like champions, it turns out. They finished the season on a 12-3 roll-- and it's worth noting that the three losses came by a grand total of four runs.
All season, in fact, when Vanderbilt did lose, it lost close-- of its 16 losses, 11 came by two runs or less. Though the Commodores lost two of three late in the season to mighty LSU at the league's most intimidating ballpark, they left realizing they had come agonizingly close to sweeping the No. 5 team in the nation on the road.
The Commodores enter the SEC Tournament having played some of their best baseball in the month of May. A year ago Vandy was the first team eliminated from the eight-team tournament-- this year, the team hopes to hang around a lot longer, said Klosterman.
"Last year I think it seemed like most of us were content just to get there," he said. "This year we know what we're doing a little better, and the experience of having been there before should help us."
Regardless of what happens later this week in Hoover, the 2004 season has been one for the books.
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