'Leap year': A look back at 2004 in VU athletics

Nationally, it was a year marked by "wardrobe malfunctions", "desperate housewives", and an ugly brawl in the NBA. The Boston Red Sox finally broke their 86-year-old curse; but the Vanderbilt football curse remained alive and well. Other than that... it was a dandy of a year in Commodore sports. Here's a look back at 2004, including some of the year's most memorable photographs.

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Corey Smith, Balkman tussle (AP / N. Brake)
January: Led by senior Matt Freije, Vanderbilt's men's basketball team entered the SEC campaign a perfect 11-0; but the team predictably began to struggle once conference wars commenced. The Commodores dropped four of their first six SEC contests, including a 57-55 heartbreaker at Memorial which saw an ugly brawl between Corey Smith and South Carolina's Renaldo Balkman. "I'd be worried about [Balkman's] teeth in the next game," said an angry Kevin Stallings, who later apologized for the remarks. Knocked out of the Top 25, with their season teetering on the brink of disaster, the Commodore closed the month with an unforgettable, 66-60 home upset of No. 5 Kentucky, highlighted by a Dawid Przybyszewski coast-to-coast dunk. The Vandy women's basketball team was cruising with a record of 16-3, and a Top Ten ranking, in spite of the fact that star Jenni Benningfield had missed some games with a stress fracture.

Jason Holwerda dunk vs. LSU (AP/ Neil Brake)
February: The puzzling men's team was improved, but couldn't seem to win an SEC game on the road... until a Feb. 18 game at Alabama in which Vandy snapped a 14-game SEC road losing streak and kept its post-season hopes alive. Vandy brought back Perry Wallace, the SEC's color barrier pioneer, for a jersey-retirement ceremony Feb. 20; but Jason Holwerda stole the spotlight with a 'ridiculous' dunk over LSU's Antonio Hudson. Matt Freije surpassed Phil Cox as the school's all-time scoring king in another road win, at Ole Miss. Meanwhile on the women's side, the Commodores went on a four-game losing binge and appeared to be losing their grip on the post-season... before rallying to upend No. 15 LSU on the road. The win proved to be the season's turning point. No one knew it at the time, but it would be the start of a nine-game winning streak that would carry Melanie Balcomb's team well into the basketball-crazy month of March. In football, Bobby Johnson signed 20 prospects on National Signing Day, including Alabama's Mr. Football Chris Nickson, and Daniel Lee, an 11th-hour addition as a placekicker.

Jenni Benningfield cuts nets at SEC Tournament(VUAD / Neil Brake)
March: For Vanderbilt basketball fans, it was one of the greatest months of March that anyone could ever remember. At Nashville's Gaylord Arena, the women won four heart-pounding victories in four days to win the SEC Tournament. Freshman Carla Thomas earned Tournament MVP honors, and the Comeback Commodores wound up with a surprising No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. As for the men, Matt Freije closed out his career at Memorial Gym with perhaps his finest-ever performance in a win over pesky UT. Still, with only an 8-8 conference record, the VU men entered the SEC Tournament in Atlanta needing a couple of wins to assure an NCAA Tournament bid. But after the Commodores rallied to knock off No. 5 Mississippi State in the second round, it became official: seniors Freije, Russell Lakey and Scott Hundley were going to play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in their careers. But the best was yet to come-- Vandy would be one of only four universities in the nation whose men's and women's teams would advance to the Sweet 16. No Commodore fan will ever forget the "Comeback against the Wolfpack". After "too-white" Vanderbilt erased a 10-point lead in the game's last 2:44 and earned a trip to Phoenix, a spent Freije was nearly too overcome with emotion to speak. Eventual national champion UConn would end Vandy's run, and Stanford's Kelly Suminski's buzzer-beater would bring Jenni Benningfield's and Hillary Hager's careers to a premature close. Still, it was so much excitement that... few people noticed that Vanderbilt's baseball team had gotten off to its best start in years.

Coach Martha Freitag, May Wood (VUAD)
April: Those who had wondered what effect Gordon Gee's sweeping athletic department restructuring would have on the school's sports teams were starting to get their answer... it was an unprecedented spring for Vandy's Olympic sports. Martha Freitag's women's golf team came home with the SEC title, and May Wood won the individual crown. Cathy Swezey's lacrosse ladies won their conference championship. Vanderbilt's women's tennis team breezed to a 20-2 record and a No. 3 national ranking, and hosted the SEC Championships at the Brownlee O. Currey tennis center. And behind the pitching tandem of Jeremy Sowers of Ryan Mullins, and the double-play combo of Ryan Klosterman and Warner Jones, suddenly Tim Corbin's baseball team looked to have a realistic shot at making the NCAA Regionals for the first time since 1980.

Aleke Tsoubanos, Kelly Schmandt (VM / Whitney D.)
May: The month of May was undeniably one of the greatest sports months in school history; every day seemed to bring more good news for fans of Vandy's spring sports. The women's golf team won the NCAA Central Regional, then finished fifth in the NCAA's, even without its star May Wood. The men's golf team advanced to the NCAA Championships in Hot Springs, Va. Women's lacrosse won two games in the NCAA Tournament to advance to the Final Four for the first time ever. Geoff MacDonald's women's tennis team also advanced to the NCAA Final Four, a feather in the cap of outstanding seniors Kelly Schmandt and Aleke Tsoubanos. The baseball team finished the regular season 39-16, which marked a new school record for wins in a season. Vandy's Josie Hahn won the high jump at the NCAA Mideast Regional. The men's tennis team knocked off SEC champion Ole Miss on the Rebels' home courts on its way to the NCAA Elite Eight. The women's basketball team picked up a transfer from the national champion Connecticut Huskies, Liz Sherwood. Meanwhile acting athletics director David Williams announced the final phase of Vanderbilt's athletics department's restructuring, in which four new Directors of Sports Operations were appointed. (Predictably, the plan drew sneers from Tennessean columnist Joe Biddle, who predicted lots of Vandy coaches would bolt in the absence of a true athletic director; so far, not a single one has left.)

Commodores celebrate win at SEC Tournament (VUAD/N.Brake)
June: The months of June and July are normally quiet months for followers of Vandy sports, but not this year. In the SEC Baseball Tournament in Hoover, Ala., Vandy won its bracket and advanced to play in the Sunday championship game. Then it was off to Charlottesville, Va., for the NCAA Regionals... which Vandy swept through to advance to the NCAA Super Regionals for the first time ever. No. 1 Texas brought the dream season to an end, but the 2004 Commodores forever raised the bar for Vandy baseball. Predictably, another school (Auburn) soon came looking to hire away Corbin; but Gee and Williams demonstrated that it really is a new day for Vandy athletics by locking up Corbin with a "lifetime" contract. The Miami Heat drafted Matt Freije in the second round of the NBA Draft. And the Nashville Rhythm, a new men's professional basketball franchise, made national news by hiring Vandy product Ashley McElhiney, the first woman ever to coach a men's pro team.

Kevin Stallings
July: Suddenly Vanderbilt was embroiled in another coaching crisis, when Kevin Stallings, who'd coached Vandy to a 23-10 season, was courted by Ohio State for its men's basketball opening. Stallings interviewed for the job, but the Buckeyes passed him up for Xavier's Thad Matta. Stallings, who never spoke publicly about the dalliance, would later receive a contract extension, as would women's golf Coach of the Year Martha Freitag and men's golf coach Press McPhaul. The crisis averted, Stallings' five-man recruiting class, his best yet, reported to campus along with an unexpected transfer, Derrick Byars from Virginia. At SEC Football Media Days in Birmingham, the focus was on Phillip Fulmer, who passed up the event out of fear of being subpoenaed. But there was also lots of talk that Vanderbilt, with 21 returning starters, might be poised to break its 21-year bowl-less streak. "Obviously they're preparing for something besides 2-10," said Coach Bobby Johnson, who downplayed such talk. "We're trying to have general excellence in our football program, so that we can compete in this league. And if we can compete in this league, if we ever get it to that point, we're going to have our opportunities to go bowling."

You've got to be a football hero: Jay Cutler (6) poses at Dore Jam 2004 (VM / Whitney D.)
August: August, as always, was a month for football preseason practices and football talk. The marketing department attempted to pump up season ticket sales by offering incentives to fans who wore gold. Fans showed up in big numbers for the third annual Dore Jam, in hopes that some of the excitement and successes from basketball and spring sports might carry over into the fall. Coach Bobby Johnson was desperately searching for a center and a placekicker, but the team had experienced starters returning at almost every other position. The punting game got a boost when Abtin "Ponch" Iranmanesh unexpectedly decided to return to school for a fifth year of eligibility. As Labor Day weekend approached, fans realized that the opener against South Carolina had the potential to be one of the biggest wins in years...

Lou Holtz consoles Bobby Johnson after beating his team in opener. (VM / B. Wiseman)
September: M.J. Garrett made his debut on MTV's reality show "The Real World." But on the season's inaugural weekend, Vanderbilt's football team learned that the real world of the SEC gridiron can be a cold place indeed. Vandy came out flat against the Gamecocks and was thrashed by Lou Holtz's club, 31-6. (Little did anyone know that the venerable Holtz would retire at the end of the season, paving the way for Steve Spurrier's return to the SEC.) Two weeks later in Oxford, Vandy blew a 23-10 third-quarter lead and lost in overtime to Ole Miss; and the Commodores closed September with a 29-26 loss to Navy. For the first time in his three years at Vandy, Bobby Johnson began to take some serious heat on talk shows and message boards.

Cheron Thompson (8) consoles Jovan Haye after a loss. (VUAD / N. Brake)
October: The football squad momentarily appeared to right the ship Oct. 2 with an easy home win over Mississippi State; but the following week brought one of the most gut-wrenching collapses Dudley Field has ever witnessed. The Commodores were cruising 27-3 over Rutgers, and a lively crowd was doing the wave and tossing beach balls around. Longtime Vanderbilt football enthusiasts can probably guess what happened next: the Scarlet Knights roared back for a 37-34 win. "There were about five things that had to happen in that game for us to lose... and they all happened," Johnson said. After the Dores finished the month with a 2-6 record, all hopes for a winning season and bowl game were mathematically quashed. In non-football news... the Vandy men's soccer team doubled its win total from the previous year (from 3 to 6), and Vandy hired a women's bowling coach.

Jay Cutler (VM / Bryan Hufalar)
November: November brought more gridiron gloom. After dropping its Homecoming game to Florida before a lively group of alumni, the Commodores blew a 13-0 lead in the fourth quarter in Lexington and lost to Kentucky, 14-13. "We emptied just about every cylinder in the gun to shoot ourselves in the foot," said Coach Johnson of the UK loss. In the season finale vs. Tennessee, the Commodores exceeded expectations and scored 33 points-- but the Vols scored 38. The rousing performance gave fans plenty to talk about in the off-season, but left the football program, for the fourth straight season, with a measly total of two wins. Gloomy fans realized that with the schedule getting tougher next season, and with many key starters moving on, the Commodores may have missed out on a window of opportunity. In more encouraging news... Tim Corbin signed the most heralded baseball recruiting class in school history; Kevin Stallings and Melanie Balcomb both added signees; and both basketball teams opened the season with easy home wins.

Shan Foster dunks (VM/B.Wells)
December: The year's final month was filled with question marks: (1) Would Jay Cutler bypass his senior year for the NFL Draft, as Matthew Tant and Jovan Haye had already decided to do? (2) Would Kevin Stallings' 2004-05 team be able to win a game on the road? His Commodores played like Supermen when they played at Memorial Gym, but morphed into mild-mannered Clark Kents when they ventured on the road. Nonetheless several of Stallings' touted freshmen (including Shan Foster, left) quickly earned places in fans' hearts. (3) Are Melanie Balcomb's Commodores as good as they've looked at times? Her team roared out to a 10-1 record, with an average margin of victory of around 40 points. Postscript: the year ended on a somber and tragic note, when football tailback Kwane Doster was senselessly murdered in Tampa in the early-morning hours following Christmas Day. On the final day of the year, the Vanderbilt family tearfully paid their last respects to the fallen 21-year-old, who represented everything good about VU student-athletes.

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From the entire VandyMania staff, best wishes for a safe and prosperous 2005.


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