Vanderbilt and Virginia, finalists in the past two College World Series, won’t be making it a three-peat after a regional weekend both teams wish had never happened.
Life and its random cruelty interjected itself into Vanderbilt’s season on Thursday. Freshman and 2015 Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year Donny Everett drowned in the presence of two of his teammates while fishing with them at Normandy Lake about an hour from Vanderbilt’s Nashville campus. Though his contributions to the team as a freshman were modest–a 0-1 record in 12 innings–he brought to the team an infectious personality and the promise of a much bigger role in the coming seasons.
Rated the 21st-best player in the country following his senior year of high school, there was talk that Everett would be a first-rounder in last summer’s Major League draft. However, he made it clear that he intended to honor the commitment he made to Vanderbilt as a sophomore, stating that “the family here is just something that you cannot pass up. The life lessons that Coach Corbin can teach me, I will always remember. The education is great and will help my life after baseball.”
Shocks like the sudden loss of a teammate sometimes can be galvanizing. That’s what the team hoped when it made the decision to press on with its Friday night game against Xavier, a game that ultimately was postponed by weather until Saturday. The baseball field offered the team a chance for refuge against the despair that hung over the program. It’s been said a thousand times by a thousand athletes in every imaginable sport. The game and its routine offers the despondent athlete the chance to get away, for a few hour at least, the grief or the guilt or the shame of personal circumstance.
“It made sense. That’s their safe haven. The field was their safe haven. Just to get some type of routine and continue to do what they do, it’s almost like a rehabilitation process for them, ” said Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin of his team’s desire to play on.
Unfortunately, the team could not gather itself sufficiently for Saturday’s game and Xavier delivered what I am sure was a regrettable 15-1 thrashing of the Commodores. In the elimination game that followed, Washington ended Vanderbilt’s season by scoring seven runs in the last three innings to complete a 9-8 comeback win.
In Charlottesville, the defending national champion Virginia Cavaliers were three outs from the driver’s seat in the regional it was hosting. Leading East Carolina University 6-3 heading to the bottom of the ninth inning, the Hoos were poised to advance to the winner’s bracket. Virginia’s closer Tommy Doyle had been rock solid since inheriting the closer’s role in a mid-season pitching shakeup and had looked good in striking out two of the three batters he had faced after entering the game in the 8th inning.
The Pirates had been knocking on Virginia’s door all day longhowever, having left 12 men on base prior to the ninth inning. In their last at bat, ECU finally broke through, scoring five runs off Doyle, the last three coming via a game-winning three-run homer by catcher Travis Watkins. The shocking end to a game in which it appeared that Virginia was going to prevail prompted Virginia skipper Brian O’Connor to comment that this “certainly is as difficult as any loss we have had in the NCAA Tournament.” Indeed.
Facing elimination, the Cavs on Sunday took the field against a William & Mary team it had knuckledusted 17-4 two days earlier and had beaten eleven consecutive times. The Tribe however, going back to its conference tournament, had won five consecutive elimination games. Against Virginia, it was the Hoos’ bullpen that blinked, surrendering a late lead and allowing the Tribe to put an arrow through Virginia’s season with a 5-4 victory.
Pitching and defense are the foundations upon which O’Connor has built this Virginia program into perhaps the nation’s finest during his 13-year tenure . The Cavaliers came into this season with lots of pitching questions and, aside from a late-season respite, those questions never really were answered. The Hoos had a dominant starter in junior Connor Jones, but struggled with second and third options until Adam Haseley found his groove late. Replacing last year’s dominant closer, Josh Sborz, proved to be impossible and Virginia’s bullpen in 2016 was decidedly sub-par by UVA standards. The result was that this Virginia team won “only” 38 games, a low under O’Connor and a testament to just how far this program has come since its days as an ACC doormat.
“They needed to walk off this field with their chins up and proud of what’s on the front of their jersey. When you have success like we have in this program, you have to step back and understand sometimes you’ve got to take the bad with the good. It stings. Nobody likes losing. You feel like you can continue to play forever, but we’ve had a lot of success in this program and we’re very proud of that and I’m very proud of this team,” said O’Connor as he attempted to put the 2016 season in perspective.
Vanderbilt’s players will grieve for their lost teammate and, with time, perhaps use that loss to propel them to greater heights next year. Virginia will lament a shocking end to its title defense. Both teams will send players on to the next level and both teams will once again be among the nation’s elite in 2017. Baseball is routine and the routine is the best medicine for disappointment. And tragedy.
E-mail Seward at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @SewardTotty.