Indisputable point #1: Tim Corbin is one of the greatest coaches - of any sport - in Vanderbilt history.
How else can you explain the rocketship of rising expectations that has lifted the Diamond 'Dores over the past decade? Corbin's turnaround in Nashville has been one of the SEC's best stories of the new millenium. Vanderbilt had won a grand total of three NCAA Tournament games before he came to Nashville. Since he's arrived, they've won 23.
That winning tradition has lifted Vanderbilt up to college baseball's highest level. Corbin's Commodores not only compete in the country's toughest baseball conference, they thrive. Vandy has gone 101-72 in SEC play in the past six years while qualifying for the NCAA Tournament in each year. At this point, the baseline expectation for this team is not only to make it to the postseason's biggest bracket, but also to make a deep run.
That brings us to indisputable point #2: This was not a disappointing season for Vanderbilt baseball. Sure, expectations were high when the Commodores were ranked as a top 10 team despite losing the cores of both their pitching and batting lineups. Monday's come-from-ahead loss - the product of a young team that simply ran out of gas playing five games in five days - was disheartening. The ride between those two moments; evolving from 1-7 in February to 35-28 in June made for one of the most memorable seasons in Vanderbilt baseball history.
17 of their final 23 games were decided by three runs or less. The 'Dores suffered just one blowout loss after April, a surprising 8-2 defeat at Tennessee. The team's offense regrouped around their lack of power hitters by becoming masters of the basepaths. Few innings seemed to go by without a key play at the plate or a dash to second base behind the pitcher's back. This team wasn't just winning - they were entertaining as hell. They embodied every great thing about SEC baseball in the midst of this torrid streak.
All that happened after most pundits had counted this team out. Explore some of the archived NCAA Tournament projections through April and May. You'll find that Vanderbilt wasn't even an afterthought when national columnists were putting together their field of 64. That was for good reason, too - the Commodores hadn't even sniffed the plus-.500 record they would need to even qualify for the bracket.
Real fans held out hope, though. Every non-conference game was a chance to get this team's record closer to even. Every SEC showdown was an opportunity to prove that this team was no longer the bumbling gang of young players who seemingly couldn't get through two innings without committing an error. We kept telling ourselves that the growth that began in February would turn out to be exponential when April hit. And this underclassman-heavy squad rewarded that commitment.
That lingering sense of faith is what made this team, this coach, and this Vanderbilt sports dynasty, special. For all intents and purposes, this team's season should have ended in earnest on April 21st. That's when a Commodore team that needed to play lights-out baseball to qualify for the postseason lost their second game in a row to an Alabama squad that only won 21 games all year. That dropped Vanderbilt to 17-23 late in their season with some major showdowns looming.
To suggest the remaining schedule was a challenge would be understatement. This was a Vanderbilt team that was in danger of missing a 10-team SEC Tournament, and they still had series remaining against a pair of top 10 teams (LSU and Kentucky), their in-state rivals (Tennessee), a top 25 team (Ole Miss) and a game against their new rival/top 25 opponent Louisville. If they managed to survive that, they'd still need to tread water in the shark tank of the SEC Tournament where South Carolina and Florida waited. If you were anywhere else but Natchez Trace, things probably looked bleak.
But not at Hawkins Field. This young team rebounded with a resiliency that shocked college baseball. They rolled off a 16-4 run that carried them through the end of the regular season and into the SEC Tournament Final. They capped that off with a memorable streak in Raleigh before a tough - and frankly, more talented - NC State team outscrapped them in the finals. This team's last win of 2012 will be an incredible 8-3 comeback on the road, in the NCAA Tournament, as the underdogs and via a walk-off hit. There's few other moments that could better encapsulate this team's season than that lasting image of Tony Kemp's game-winning single to right-centerfield.
The actual ending? Well, that sucked. But this year's postseason run was as much about 2013 as it was about 2012. Remember how long it took Vanderbilt to get to Omaha? That was a building process. The core of Gray, Esposito, Westlake, et al had to struggle through postseason losses that hardened them as time went on. That team ended their first season in the Regional stage, then cut their teeth with a tough Super Regional loss at Florida State the following year. With those losses weighing heavily on their minds, that veteran team breezed to Omaha in 2011 for the first College World Series in school history.
Now, the Commodores are on that path again. Only five players that are projected to be regulars in 2013 got to play in the CWS last year. That number could be even less depending on how this week's MLB Draft plays out. Their veteran leadership can now be supplemented by a balanced roster of players who now know what it's like to play playoff baseball on the road in an elimination game. That's an intangible statistic that can be the difference between playing in June and starting summer ball early - and the 'Dores have it on their side.
As for the departing members of the 2012 squad? They will be missed. So Will Clinard (likely) ended his Vandy career with a Regional loss. You know who else did? David Price. Riley Reynolds earned his place on this team with a freshman year that made him an All-American, and then re-emerged this postseason to prove what kind of veteran presence he could bring. Drew Fann was a valuable clubhouse leader, inspiration for the @FakeDrewFann twitter feed, and the only #VandyBoy to ever qualify for Social Security while on the team.
Sam Selman, if he chooses to sign with whichever team drafts him on day two, may be the biggest loss of all. His emergence as a legitimate SEC frontline starter was one of the catalysts that turned this team's season around. There's a chance that he returns to Nashville, but the lure of a big league paycheck after a stellar junior year will be tough to turn down. He'll have to weigh that against the chance to headline a starting rotation that will feature Tyler Beede, T.J. Pecoraro, Kevin Ziomek, and Drew VerHagen. Even if he leaves, that's a tough group of returning players.
And that's where the beauty lies in last night's loss. This returning core of young players is now battle tested, and they'll have all winter to deal with the sting of a come-from-ahead defeat. That hunger is going to drive this team through offseason workouts and into what will likely be another year of early challenges in out-of-conference play. The recipe is there. This team has followed it before. Now the ingredients are in place. If there's one man who can combine the two, it's Tim Corbin.
2012 is over, but it served as the valuable bridge year between the Esposito/Gray era to the Navin/Pecoraro one. A Regional Final in a rebuilding year isn't bad. In fact, it's not even close to bad. But still, we're disappointed to see it go. That's just a product of Tim Corbin's rocketship of expectations; and that's a great thing if you're a Commodore.