Tony Kemp only walked 90 feet, but it was the first 90 feet on a journey that the Commodores hope will end in Omaha. The men’s baseball team opened their season in California this weekend, dispatching #28 San Diego in a three game sweep and beating San Diego State in a one game showdown to prove their mettle in the start of what has been a much-hyped season.
Kemp, the team’s freshman leadoff hitter, started #3 Vanderbilt’s season off with a walk and eventually came around to score on a single from transfer Sam Lind two batters later to start the ‘Dores season off on a high note. Behind a clutch offense and some stellar pitching down the stretch, Vandy made an early-season case for their top five presence in several preseason polls. Late-inning rallies broke ties in the team’s final two games to secure the team’s solid start. The wins helped bump Vandy into the top three in BaseballAmerica’s collegiate poll.
There were several differences on display between this year’s team and last, most notably Jason Esposito’s shift from third base to shortstop. There, he displayed some slick fielding chops but also committed a pair of errors, keeping former Freshman All-American Anthony Gomez at second base for the time being. Additionally, newcomers Kemp, Lind, Conrad Gregor, and Kevin Ziomek were all called on for significant innings for Tim Corbin’s squad, and each displayed the composure and talent to give Commodore fans a reason to to optimistic about this season and years beyond.
Three days each week, Jeff Gendelman spends afternoons in Memorial Gym, aiding Melanie Balcomb and the Commodore women’s basketball team as a scout-team practice player. On Tuesday, the junior from New York was one of 17 undergraduates trying to make James Franklin’s first spring football roster at Vanderbilt.
Give Gendelman plenty of credit for trying. Unsuccessful in previous attempts to make the men’s basketball and baseball teams on campus, he was back, fully intent on fulfilling a boyhood dream.
"You could say I’m going for the trifecta, I guess," Gendelman said. "I’ve tried to have a great attitude about the entire thing, give it my best shot, and see how it works out. But really, how many college students get an opportunity like this? It’s awesome."
After weeks talking up the tryouts at frat houses and popular gathering spots across campus, the head coach told the candidates he appreciated their interest, enthusiasm and effort.
"I really appreciate your attitude and willingness to compete. I know it’s important to each of you. However this turns out, I truly appreciate your commitment," said Franklin, who later said several prospects could be added to the roster.
Franklin was a keen observer, frequently praising extra effort, urging proper technique and correcting poor form during the two-hour workout.
"Give me five straight completions, five straight right now," Franklin told 6’4" sophomore John Townsley. The southpaw, a former prep quarterback at Upper Arlington (Ohio) High School, obliged.
"It’s exciting because I haven’t had the spotlight on me since high school," Townsley said. "This is special, just getting the opportunity to keep playing football. If I make it, I’ll do any job they ask me too."
Two of those on the receiving end of Townsley’s passes were freshmen Daniel Hagaman of Brentwood, Tenn., and Jarron Lewis of Houston, Texas. The roommates heard of the tryouts from others living in their dorm at The Commons.
"Ever since I was little, it’s been a dream of mine to play college football," Lewis said. "It would mean the world to me."
Hagaman, a former hybrid safety at Brentwood High School hoping to secure a roster spot at wide receiver was encouraged - and embarrassed - by his brief performance. Before the session began, Hagaman realized he’d committed a huge mistake.
"I felt really good, but I’m sort of embarrassed," Hagaman said. "I didn’t think about doing ball drills. I can tell you forgetting your contacts is really dumb for any receiver."
Head coach James Franklin discussed a wide range of Vanderbilt football Wednesday afternoon during a 30-minute sitdown with 104.5 The Zone’s 3-Hour Lunch bunch - Brent Dougherty, Clay Travis and Blaine Bishop.
From coaching up his young daughters on “building championships” to explaining the concept of grayshirting, describing the rare emotion of hearing a recruit say “yes” to Vanderbilt the night before National Signing Day, Franklin talked on a variety of subjects. Including his only expectation of the half hour: “I want 10,000 at the Black & Gold Spring Game (on April 17). That’s right, 10,000.”
Commodores like a fine wine, get better with time this season…
You play tough games in December and January to learn how to win them in February and March. Heading into tonight’s game, the Commodores were just 2-4 on the road with losses at Missouri by 3 (OT), South Carolina by 8, Tennessee by 3, and Florida by 4 (OT). After tonight’s gritty win, where the Commodores trailed by as many as 14 in the 2nd half, I think it’s fair to say Vanderbilt learned from those losses. They learned how to win. The Commodores have beaten 3 projected NCAA tournament teams in 7 days, and are now in firm control of 2nd place in the SEC East (and the bye that comes with it), just 2 games behind a Gator team that still has to travel to Rupp and Memorial before the season is over. But let’s talk about tonight’s game.
1. John Freaking Jenkins
To quote The Voice, Joe Fisher (who I am currently trying to coax onto Twitter) from a few years ago (and changing the name): “if [John Jenkins] isn’t player of the year, I don’t know why.” Jenkins was 0-5 in the first half, and missed his first 6 attempts. Then, we went off. John Jenkins scored 21 points in the last 13:16 of the game. He finished the game 6-8 from the field, including 5-7 from downtown. He has the killer instinct. He is a pure scorer. He is the SEC Player of the Year.
2. Control the Glass, Control the Game
Vanderbilt dominated the glass, out-rebounding the Bulldogs 49 to 32, including a 26 to 9 margin on the offensive glass. Vanderbilt had 18 second chance points, as compared to just 4 for Georgia. The Commodores are now 12-1 this season when out-rebounding their opponents: their sole win, against Georgia in Memorial where Georgia grabbed 8 more than Vanderbilt. In January, the Bulldogs had a +11 advantage on the offensive glass. Looks like the Commodores learned.
3. Festus Ezeli is a Beast
His line tonight was 10 points, 12 rebounds, and 7 blocks. 7 blocks. Really? 7! 7 FREAKING BLOCKS. I don’t know what else to say other than he is the best center in the SEC, and one of the best big men in America.
4. Lay Off Jeffery Taylor
Jeffery Taylor has struggled on offense as of late. Tonight he was just 2-18 from the floor, including multiple misses close. In his last 2 games, JT is a woeful 3-25 for just 11 points. Don’t panic. JT is going through a slump where his shots (wherever attempted from) aren’t falling. That happens. Don’t forget about JT’s performances against Mississippi State where he single-handedly lifted the Commodores to a win on the road. He’s still averaging 14.6 points a game, and 13.6 in conference play. He’s not Vanderbilt’s #1 offensive option, but with a pure scorer like John Jenkins, he doesn’t have to be. JT is much better when he is option 2 or 3 (behind JJ and Festus). Despite his 2-18 performance, what I’m most impressed with was Taylor’s performance on defense and on the glass. JT led the team with 13 rebounds and was instrumental in containing Travis Leslie, one of the best athletes in the SEC. While I was never as critical of AJ as others, I’ll certainly concede he was a frustrating player to watch at times. JT can be as well. With that said, the JT as this year’s AJ is a flawed comparison. While I can’t exactly put my finger on it (neither can Seamus, we discussed it after the game), the best evidence that the comparison is off is JT’s line tonight. Do you remember AJ having an impact on the glass when he wasn’t scoring? Maybe my memory is selective, but I certainly don’t. If any of you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them.
There’s no other way to put it, this was huge win. The Commodores are now firmly in the driver’s seat in the race for a bye in the SEC Tournament. As I said above, winning a game like this (on the road no less) shows the team is improving and learning from the games they’ve played thus far. The Commodores remain a team beleaguered by injuries. Lance isn’t health, neither is Andre. It hasn’t mattered. Rod Odom, Stevie Thunder, and Kyle Fuller have filled in tremendously, playing quality minutes, knocking down huge shots, and making the most of their time. Get excited Commodore fans, this team is the real deal.