Tennessee might be limping into Hawkins Field this weekend but No. 2 Vanderbilt insists it is not overlooking the Volunteers.
If recent history is any indication, the Commodores shouldn’t.
Tennessee has dropped 11 of its last 14 and Vanderbilt has won 15 of 17. But the Volunteers had the upper-hand the last two years, winning five out of six against the Commodores.
“That is a team that has handled us the last couple years,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “We’ve been able to go on and play in the postseason but it doesn’t really matter. When you are playing a team like that that has handled you the last couple years, yeah, it is important that you play well against them. Whomever we play in the [Southeastern Conference), you get to that Friday and there is some anxiousness going into that game.”
The in-state rivalry might not receive as much hype as do football or men’s basketball — or even women’s basketball — but pride is still on the line when the two teams meet. And that will be no different when the series opens at 6 p.m. on Friday. Vanderbilt officials are expecting a packed Hawkins Field this weekend.
Against LSU last weekend, there were two sellouts and a three-day attendance of 9,788, which is the second most for a series in school history. That passed the 9,616 Vanderbilt recorded in its series against Alabama nearly two weeks ago. The record is 10,338, which was set two years ago against Tennessee. Two of those games drew 3,700 fans, which is the school record for the most in a single game.
That environment could add to the rivalry. Vanderbilt pitcher Sonny Gray, who hails from Smyrna, says the rivalry brings out something extra from those who grew up in the state of Tennessee. Gray, however, says that excitement has to be controlled.
“You got to drop that as soon as you start thinking about it,” Gray said. “Once you starting doing that, then you start doing things you don’t normally do.”
Added Vanderbilt catcher Curt Casali: “I think for a lot of the local people around here, they make it a little bit more than what we perceive it to be. Every team that comes in here, or when we go on the road, it is a challenge for us and we are looking forward to the opportunity.”
Tennessee holds a slim 154-148-3 edge in the series and has gone farther in the postseason than Vanderbilt — to the College World Series in 2005.
The Commodores (35-5, 14-4), however, have been the more successful program as of late. They have reached an NCAA Regional the last five years and were one win away from their first trip to the CWS in 2010.
The Volunteers, meanwhile, haven’t made it back to the NCAA Tournament since 2005 and have reached the SEC Tournament just once in the last five years.
It looks like that streak will continue for Tennessee, which is 22-17 overall and 5-13 in the SEC. The Volunteers haven’t been getting blown out, though, as eight of their last nine games have been decided by two runs or less. Corbin says that is what makes the Volunteers dangerous — they have nothing to lose.
“Their motivation is going to be high,” Corbin said. “It is not like Tennessee is losing games by five and six and seven runs. They are losing games by a run. They are very capable of figuring things out.”