For the 291 Division I baseball teams, the ultimate goal is to reach the College World Series.
Only eight will make it there, arriving in Omaha in June.
So before the 56-game sprint begins with the Feb. 15 season-opener against Long Beach State, Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin put his team through a rigorous three-day strength and conditioning test that tests muscle endurance and mental toughness and builds intra-squad competition and team camaraderie.
It is the aptly named Omaha Challenge.
“I think it is indicative of the challenge it takes to become that last team standing or to get to Omaha,” Corbin said. “Besides growing strength in the body, the strength that we want to grow the most is probably the muscle between their ears and I think this has something to do with it.”
Reaching Omaha isn’t a pipe dream for the Commodores, who begin practice Friday. Vanderbilt is just two years removed from its last — and only — trip to the College World Series and is ranked third in the country in Collegiate Baseball’s recent preseason poll.
Thus, enduring the strenuous Omaha Challenge, which Corbin called the culmination of the team’s strength and endurance activities in the fall, is just the start. Clemson coach Jack Leggett and former Vanderbilt strength and conditioning coach John Sisk designed the workout in 1998. Corbin, a former Clemson assistant, brought the program with him to Vanderbilt in 2002 and made it an annual preseason challenge every year except 2009, when the Commodores played exhibition games in Japan.
Splitting the 34-man roster into four teams, the competitions vary each year. This time current strength and conditioning coach Gabe Teeple came up with eight events. They included a relay of carrying a 50-pound and 100-pound medicine ball while running a total of 200 yards. Sophomore outfielder John Norwood dangled for 1:44 in the baseball hang, which forced players to hold as long they could while gripping two baseballs hanging from a squat rack to test upper body strength. Pitcher Jared Miller won the dumbbell bench press competition by lifting 160 pounds an amazing 43 times.
“Your body was sore daily,” Miller said. “We knew going into the third day you were going to have to do the obstacle course, which is never fun.”
The challenge concluded with a grueling course, which unfolded in the football stadium. The competition included throwing jabs at a tackling dummy, flipping a tractor tire, jumping over hurdles, pushing a 150-pound prowler sled 40 yards, carrying more medicine balls and ending with a run to the top of the stadium. Outfielder Connor Harrell blazed through the course in a winning time of 1:59.
“There is some mental toughness associated with it,” Corbin said. “Some of these events are strenuous. There has to be a level of commitment to finishing it and you have to work through some pain that is associated with it. … We’re not Navy Seals. I don’t ever want to cross the line with the kids. I think what we have is healthy and it is more indicative of who they are.”
Perhaps a sign of bigger, stronger athletes, Harrell’s time was 19 seconds better than 2007 obstacle course winner Mike Minor, who was drafted by the Atlanta Braves two years later. Other marks weren’t challenged. Former outfielder Jonathan White’s time of 17.39 in the prowler push in 2007 was seven seconds better than Miller’s winning mark in the same category this year.
But Miller, a 6-foot-6, 235-pound lefty who won the overall title for pitchers, smashed last year’s mark in the dumbbell bench press. In fact, three players — all pitchers — finished with at least 35 repetitions, whereas no one completed more than 33 reps last year.
“I look back at some of those records we created, even at Clemson, those are blown away by kids today,” Corbin said. “But that’s not just because of what we do. It is what their training methods are and how much different they are, even when I first started coaching at Clemson in ‘93, how much more physical kids are today. I mean they all own a strength coach. So it is not unique anymore.”
Besides toughening up the body, Corbin sees huge upside and carryover into the season.
Last year he watched as right-handed pitcher Drew VerHagen tried to overcome an injury in the offseason after transferring from a junior college. VerHagen battled through the daunting challenge and won the pitcher’s competition.
This confidence gained from outdueling his teammates, spilled over into the season, where VerHagen was a key cog for the Commodores. A few days after the season ended, he was drafted in the fourth round by the Detroit Tigers.
When 6-foot-3, 220-pound first baseman Conrad Gregor won his second straight position player title, his teammates and coaches weren’t shocked.
But for those freshmen or newcomers, such as VerHagen last year, the Omaha Challenge could be the start of a huge momentum boost heading into a daunting season.
“[Gregor] is driven and determined. I also think it helps certain kids who don’t come in like that they become that guy sooner or later,” Corbin said. “Because it is competitive. They don’t want to be last. It teaches them mental skills that they might not have when they came in.”