It may not be something we get to say often, but Vanderbilt fans are spoiled. Tim Corbin made us that way.
Corbin's leadership has created a franchise at Hawkins Field, a known commodity that operates and excels at the highest level of college athletics. He brought life to a moribund branch of Vanderbilt athletics, turning an afterthought into a staple of ESPN's NCAA baseball broadcasts. His methods of bringing northern recruits to the south has paid dividends and turned West End into a haven for baseball junkies and casual fans alike.
Before Corbin's arrival, Vanderbilt had been to three NCAA Tournaments in school history. In nine years as head coach, Corbin has taken this team to seven. His tenure has included two SEC Championships as well as a final four appearance in the College World Series. In no short order, Vanderbilt has developed into a national power in less than a decade.
The work that the Vanderbilt baseball staff and players have done to raise the profile of their university is nothing less than impressive. Now, the team needs its fans more than ever. Vandy boosters have had the opportunity to watch their club mature right before their eyes. After a slow start that seemed to doom the team's streak of NCAA appearances, the 'Dores have regained their composure to make a run at Omaha once again. Big wins this weekend could reasonable lock down a seventh straight trip to the NCAA Regionals.
The team took a tough road to get here. This 2012 Diamond 'Dore team faced the task of replacing 12 players that were drafted by MLB teams, including their entire weekend rotation and the heart of their batting lineup. Still, an influx of talented young players thanks to Corbin's deep recruiting veins was expected to keep this team afloat.
Unfortunately, the team learned early on that a rebuilding club and a killer schedule don't mix. Vandy started off the season 1-7 and 7-15 against an out-of-conference murderer's row that included top 25 teams Stanford, Oregon, and San Diego. Things only got more difficult when the 'Dores opened up conference play in a league that holds four of the country's top ten teams in any given week.
But as the schedule got tougher, so did the Commodores. Vanderbilt slowly turned things around as the offense woke up and the defense bowed up in the field. Things started gradually with a series win over Georgia. Then the team gave South Carolina and Mississippi State all they could handle in close losses. Finally, things all came together with victories over top-10 teams Kentucky and LSU, kicking off a three-week series winning streak and putting the team over .500 for the first time all season.
However, there's still work to be done.
Vanderbilt's season is on the line this weekend against Ole Miss. A sweep guarantees this team a winning record and a likely bid in Corbin's seventh straight NCAA Tournament. Anything less than two victories leaves the Commodores with plenty of work to do in the SEC Tournament. Suddenly, a relatively low-profile showdown with the Rebels has become the most important series of the season. Fortunately, it's happening at Hawkins Field.
This series is about the future as much as it is about this year. Vanderbilt fans know first hand the value of experience when it comes to tournament baseball. Corbin's team only made it to Omaha after 16 postseason games in the previous three years. Double-elimination brackets are won by equal parts skill and composure. This team has proven that the level of talent is there. However, composure has been a missing link throughout the season.
That hangs an ominous shadow over the remainder of this season, but playoff experience would do wonders for a young team heading into 2013. No one in Vanderbilt's pitching rotation has ever started a NCAA Tournament game. Approximately half of the team's starting lineup at the plate can say the same. That's an understandable thing when you've got a team full of freshmen and first-year starters, but a detriment for a team filled with returning players.
That second scenario is one that the Commodores can avoid with a big weekend against Ole Miss. Vanderbilt can earn invaluable experience while keeping the team's postseason streak alive with a big weekend at home. Ole Miss will present a significant challenge. The Rebels are currently ranked 25th in BaseballAmerica's poll and they're stil jockeying for the opportunity to host a Regional back in Oxford. Still, Corbin's team has conquered tougher challenges this season. They'll need to make Mississippi the fourth entry in the list of ranked teams they have beaten in series play this year in order to take another step towards finishing their turnaround.
Vandy baseball is on the precipice of an impressive comeback. They'll have the opportunity to lock down a NCAA Tournament bid with a big performance this weekend. That will start this Thursday at the Hawk, but the 'Dores will have to overcome empty dorms and a weeknight start to pack the stadium that has become the heart of baseball in Tennessee. That's a big burden for a modest fanbase to carry, but the black and gold should be out in force for all three games this weekend. After all, we may be spoiled, but we're still loyal.