Feb. 24, 2010
BY JOSH PATE, UTSports.com
Saturday's walk-off victory against Xavier was emotional for the Tennessee baseball team, but especially for one player and one coach.
Matt Duffy, in his first season with the Vols, started at third base, batted fifth, and went 0-for-4 with a strikeout. Nothing special. Volunteer assistant coach Bill Currier took a little extra pride in that left fielder P.J. Polk scored the winning run; Currier is in charge of coaching the outfielders. But quite honestly, Duffy and Currier were just happy to be on a field competing.
One year ago, on Feb. 20, 2009, Currier was about to embark on another season as head coach of his alma mater, the University of Vermont. Duffy was about to have a career season as shortstop for the Catamounts. Two weeks before the season was scheduled to begin, the news came: Vermont was pulling the plug on its baseball program despite its lush history. The program had placed 32 players in the Major Leagues and was the school's most successful athletic team in terms of winning percentage.
Vermont got outscored 35-5 in that opening series of the season at Vanderbilt. The Catamounts finished with a 22-33 record but was 14-10 in the America East Conference. Duffy was the conference player of the year. But it was obvious that the season wasn't the only thing on the players' minds.
"Everyone is kind of scrambling. Where am I going to play next year? Am I going to play next year? Are my credits going to transfer?" Duffy said.
Added Currier, who went 486-470 in 22 seasons at his alma mater: "It was a difficult pill for us to swallow. We had 18 freshmen and sophomores so we were lining up to be a pretty darn good team in a couple of years. It was difficult for us as a team and very disheartening to my old teammates and the many kids I coached there over the years."
Duffy said players were trying to balance aggression on the field with patience off.
"It was bizarre," he said. "Everyone was waiting, hoping to get calls from other teams."
Duffy got a call from Tennessee. He visited Knoxville over Easter, watched the Vols play Mississippi State (a 10-9 loss), and signed two weeks later. The Vermont native was headed to the South.
"At the beginning it was crazy," Duffy said. "I have never seen such school spirit at such a huge university with this tradition. I went to a smaller school and everyone kind of kept to themselves. The baseball team wasn't that big of a deal. But down here, it's just a whole different world. Everyone supports you from top to bottom in all the sports. It's crazy. It's been a great experience."
UT head coach Todd Raleigh said getting Duffy to wear the Vols uniform was a no-brainer.
"You can talk recruiting and we certainly sign first rounders out of high school and all these top picks," Raleigh said. "But they're still unproven in college, I don't care if they have five stars or four stars, it doesn't matter. When you have an opportunity to get somebody who is already established in college baseball, that's the best indicator, to me, of success because he's already achieved success at this level."
And it's gotten better. Duffy, a junior economics major, was walking to class one day when his phone rang. It was his coach from Vermont, Currier. The coaching veteran had accepted a volunteer position with Tennessee. The two former Catamounts were about to be reunited.
For Currier, moving to the South wasn't a huge issue. He broke into coaching as a graduate assistant under legendary coach and current Clemson skipper Jack Leggett, for whom he played at Vermont. Currier's first real job moved him back to the Northeast, but he said he's always had an affinity for the warmer states. Plus, it's a chance for him to recharge his coaching batteries. He works primarily with the UT outfielders, allowing more one-on-one teaching time. For Currier, that's been a nice refresher.
"Usually you're worried about travel arrangements, where you're going, scheduling for 2012, fundraising, budgeting, as well as your short stop and pitching staff. So it's kind of a little different from that perspective," Currier said. "I can sit back a little bit and analyze the situation a little more. Maybe that will be a value to Coach Raleigh."
That's why Raleigh called him in the first place. The two had coached together before when Currier gave Raleigh his first assistant coaching spot at Vermont in 1992, and Raleigh was familiar with Currier's situation since he first contacted the program about Duffy. The experience of Currier was too difficult to pass up, making Currier the only other member of Tennessee's coaching staff with previous head coaching experience.
"I don't know how many volunteer coaches in the country have 22 years of head coaching experience. So I look at that as a positive," Raleigh said with a smile. "Kids like him. He just brings a lot of knowledge to us."
For Duffy, however, the transition has been a little more gradual. The Massachusetts native moved up to Vermont for college, where the university's enrollment is just more than 13,000. Campus life is private. Baseball is buried by more popular regional sports like hockey, field hockey, lacrosse and skiing; Vermont sponsors a team for NCAA competition in all of them.
At Tennessee, Duffy is dealing with twice the student population, a monster athletic program, and a baseball team that the entire campus supports. Plus he's got an old mentor.
"It's pretty cool that my old coach got to come down and be a part of the coaching staff as well," Duffy said. "It's been cool just seeing him around the clubhouse, a familiar face and someone who has always been there to help me and guide me."
Duffy saw his success at Vermont from the shortstop position, but he's playing third base for the Vols with Zach Osborne already established at short. No problem for Duffy, and it's a gem for Raleigh. UT's coach said he sees no stronger combination on the left side of the infield in the entire country.
Raleigh likes Duffy's bat, too. Last season, Duffy hit .388, had 57 RBI, scored 57 runs, had a .713 slugging percentage, and notched a .495 on base percentage, all of which led the America East Conference. He also hit 13 home runs.
"The guy will probably hit third or fourth for most teams in the country, but not for us, which is good because we have a couple of other guys (for that spot in the lineup)," Raleigh said.
In Tennessee's first series of the season against Xavier, Duffy went 4-for-14 with five RBI while shuffling in the lineup. He batted fifth on Friday, eighth on Saturday, and sixth on Sunday.
None of that was the focus for Duffy or his old coach Currier. The bottom line: The Vols got three victories in three games. This time last year, neither knew if they would be on a team in 2010.
"This place is completely different," Duffy said. "It's on a different level. It's awesome and I'm just lucky to be a part of such a great program."