Vanderbilt spent the last three months dominating the rest of the Southeastern Conference unlike any team in league history.
Now, it will try to maintain that grip over a five-day period.
The Commodores finished off a historic regular season by taking two of three against Alabama over the weekend at Hawkins Field. The country's No. 1 team held on for a 14-10 win Saturday to finish with 26 wins in league play — the most in SEC history.
The next challenge waits in Hoover, Ala., at the SEC Tournament. Vanderbilt, the regular-season champ and top seed, opens Wednesday (4:30 p.m., CSS) against either No. 8 Florida or No. 9 Texas A&M.
The tournament has expanded from 10 to 12 teams this year. The five through 12 seeds will play in a single elimination format Tuesday. The next three days will be double elimination before it switches back to single elimination, starting with the semifinals Saturday.
“We’ll celebrate the fact that we’re there — we’re not taking that for granted either,” coach Tim Corbin said. “That tournament, even though there are 12 teams there, that’s not something they should take for granted. It is a great experience and a great tournament and we’ll do the best we can to try finish on top of it.”
Vanderbilt (48-7) will make its eighth straight appearance, the 10th in 11 seasons under Corbin, at the event. It is one thing to make the field. It is much more difficult to hoist the trophy.
The Commodores have reached the championship game three of the last four years but have been crowned champions only twice — in 1980 and 2007.
“It is tough,” centerfielder Connor Harrell said. “Lucky for us, we have that first-round bye so we don’t have to play until Wednesday. That will be good for us but at the same time it is still hard. Last year, we went 3-0 and lost in the championship. To win four or five straight games is tough.”
The most resistance figures to come from the SEC West, the superior division from top to bottom this year. All seven teams in the West have won at least 30 games and qualified for the league tournament. At least five will receive berths into an NCAA Regional.
Vanderbilt went 11-1 against those teams with the lone loss to Alabama on Friday in 10 innings. But some of its hardest-earned victories came against those same opponents.
In a sweep at Ole Miss, the Commodores came from behind to win twice and outscored the Rebels by only four runs in three games. Mississippi State also led once and hung around in every game despite being swept.
Last weekend, Alabama, which finished fifth in the division, snapped Vanderbilt’s 14-game winning streak on Friday. In the other two games, the Crimson Tide (32-24, 14-15) battled back to within one run.
“There are a lot of good teams in this conference,” Harrell said. “We feel lucky to be in it but at the same time I don’t want to see them again. … Credit Alabama because of all the teams we played this year, I have never seen a team come back from 7-1 and 12-6 leads and make it a game. I wouldn’t want them in my region.”
Plus, the Commodores did not face Texas A&M or the division’s top two teams, LSU and Arkansas. LSU, ranked second in the country, has been the biggest roadblock for Vanderbilt. The Tigers are 5-0 all-time against the Commodores in the SEC Tournament.
“[The West] is tough — this whole conference is tough,” right fielder Mike Yastrzemski said. “When you have teams who win 40, almost 50 games a year you know they are doing something right and they are a very good team and that is tough competition. If you want to be the best you have to play the best. We always want to keep playing these guys. They make us better too.”
Florida was the last team to sweep the regular season and tournament titles. The Gators also shared the regular-season crown in 2011 with South Carolina and Vanderbilt. The last No. 1 seed to claim the championship was LSU in 2009. The Commodores also won as the top seed in 2007 — the only time in school history they’ve won both the regular-season and tournament championship.
Having already broken some of the records set by the 2007 team — and on pace to eclipse several more — Vanderbilt is out to repeat history once again in Hoover.
“It would be huge,” Yastrzemski said. “It is just another stepping stone. We’re trying to play one game at a time. We’re going to keep the same mentality going out because it worked for us all season.”