As Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin started to walk off the field, Will Clinard caught his eye.
Clinard had just finished his junior year at East Robertson High School in nearby Cross Plains. Although he had verbally committed to pitch for the Commodores, his first practice at Hawkins Field was more than a year away.
That didn’t mean he didn’t take the loss just as hard as his future teammates.
“It was a devastating moment,” Clinard recalls. “I felt their pain behind the plate. It was rough. It was a rough one.”
After a stunning loss to Michigan in a 2007 NCAA Regional, Corbin remembers looking into his dejected dugout. Then he glanced over to the stands and, there, behind home plate, sat Clinard in disbelief.
“That kid goes back a long way when you talk about kids in our program that have loved Vanderbilt,” Corbin said. “He’s got a tremendous feel for this university and the success of our programs. He wants baseball to win. He wants football and basketball to win. This kid is Vanderbilt.”
It was therefore fitting, in a way, that Clinard was on the mound last June when the Commodores clinched their first trip to the College World Series. It came as no surprise when, a couple months later, he also decided to turn down the Minnesota Twins, who drafted him in the 30th round, and returned to school to finish his degree.
Now, with three pivotal SEC series remaining – the first this weekend at rival Tennessee (22-22, 7-14) – it’s not a shock that Clinard has been the stabilizing factor for a young pitching staff.
“I think your best recruits are the ones that decide to come back, I really do,” Corbin said. “To get Will Clinard back ... if we didn’t have him it would be a huge void for us.”
The lone returnee among an SEC-record 12 drafted last year, Clinard has been plugged in wherever the Commodores (21-23, 9-12) needed him.
With more experience than any of his fellow pitchers – he made a team-high 35 appearances in 2011 — the redshirt-junior ranks second on the team in appearances (19). He’s also second in wins with a 5-2 record and 5.22 ERA. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound right-hander has done everything from start, pitch in middle relief and, most recently, enter in late innings.
“The coaches have put me in places to succeed,” Clinard said. “I’ve kind been over the place a little bit. But I’m having fun with it. It’s different. You never know where you are going to go.”
He made his only two starts of the season in back-to-back Sunday assignments nearly a month ago. Since then, he’s primarily trotted in during the eighth or ninth innings but has also come in as early as the fourth inning.
“He’s very versatile but that’s Will Clinard’s personality. He is a very giving soul,” Corbin said. “He is a very gifted kid. Because of his maneuverability it is not always [an] easy [situation to come into]. He comes into close games. He comes in the fifth inning, third inning sometimes. He has just done whatever we’ve wanted him to do.”
Clinard also serves as a mentor to many of the young arms, especially six freshmen who have made their college debut this season. He often hangs around pitching coach Derek Johnson not only to develop his splitter but to offer advice to Tyler Beede, Brian Miller and Sam Selman, among others.
“It’s been fun watching the young guys come around,” Clinard said. “They’ve really come around for us and kept us in a lot of games here late, given our offense a chance to come through late innings like we have. It’s been fun to watch.”
Nearly one year after getting the phone call from the Twins, Clinard hasn’t thought twice about his decision. Later this month he’ll walk across the stage and receive his degree in environmental studies.
“I have no regrets on coming back to school,” Clinard said. “I’ll have that degree to back me up. It’s awesome. I love being here with my teammates and coaches and being at the Hawk every day. There is nothing like it.”