Same Team, New Challenge

Vanderbilt poised for uncharted waters at College World Series

by Zac Ellis

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tim Corbin has had the good fortune of venturing to Omaha three times as Vanderbilt’s head coach in 2011, 2014 and 2015. In 2014, the Commodores took home the College World Series title before authoring a runner-up finish in ’15. Thus, Corbin knows what to expect when you step off the plane in Omaha.

But Corbin’s Vanderbilt players do not. No current student-athletes on the Commodores’ roster have played in Omaha, which is why Corbin worked this week to prepare his ball club for the atmosphere that awaited them in the Cornhusker State.

“As I told them, let’s make no bones about it, when you get there, it’s an adrenaline rush,” Corbin said. “It is. It’s a festival of baseball.”

Vanderbilt expects to be a headliner of said festival when it opens its stint at the College World Series against Louisville on Sunday (1 p.m. CT on ESPN). The Commodores bring with them plenty of firepower and potential, having won the SEC regular season and tournament titles and advanced past both an NCAA Regional and Super Regional. The Dores are one of the most potent offenses in the country and boast a pitching staff still piping-hot from freshman Kumar Rocker’s historic no-hitter last Saturday.

On paper, Vanderbilt undoubtedly has a shot at the program’s second NCAA Championship. But Corbin said he hopes his team soaks in the unique pomp and circumstance of Omaha at first. Then, he said, the Commodores must turn the page.

“I think there’s a certain part of them where I want them to be a tourist for a day or a day and a half,” Corbin said. “Then the tourist has to move into the competitive mode and say, okay, we’re here, but we’re here for a reason. You have to buckle down and say, okay, it’s business time.”

The Dores arrived in Omaha on Wednesday and went straight from the airport to TD Ameritrade Park, the site of the College World Series. On Wednesday, each CWS participant enjoyed a walkthrough of the 24,000-seat stadium for a chance of acclimating to new surroundings. That was especially valuable for Vanderbilt’s bunch of Omaha newbies, a group that faces relatively uncharted waters this week.

“For the first day or two, you just look around and enjoy the experience,” catcher Philip Clarke said. “Then you’ve got to realize we’re there to play baseball on Sunday. You definitely just try to soak it up while you can, then get down to play.”

This year’s College World Series bracket features a number of familiar faces for Vanderbilt. The Commodores have faced four of the other seven teams in Omaha this season: Arkansas, Auburn, Louisville and Mississippi State. All but the Razorbacks are in Vanderbilt’s side of the bracket. Moreover, the Dores went a combined 8-1 against those four teams in 2019, with a 14-12 loss to the Hogs on April 14 representing the lone setback.

The Cardinals make for a unique opponent due to the two programs’ longstanding nonconference series. The two teams have played eight times in the “Battle of the Barrel,” with then-No. 3 Vanderbilt sinking No. 6 Louisville, 6-2, in the most recent installment on May 7. As it happens, much of the border-state rivalry has taken place in the postseason. Sunday will be the sixth NCAA matchup all-time between the Dores and Cards, who have faced off twice in the NCAA Regionals (’09, ’10), twice in the Super Regionals (’13) and once at the College World Series (’14).

Corbin was quick to point out that his team’s earlier meeting with Louisville has no bearing on Sunday’s rematch. As he put it, Omaha is more about momentum than anything else.

Now the Commodores hope they are hitting their peak at just the right time.

“I think the managing power of it is just as important,” Corbin said. “There are some teams that have a way of just finding their way to Omaha, and I really think it’s how they manage it in their organization … It’s timing. Your team has to be playing well. It’s not the best team, it’s the team that plays the best to be there. It’s just different.”