Vanderbilt Hustler Sports Roundtable: New Year, New Vanderbilt
As the calendar turns to 2022, The Vanderbilt Hustler Sports staff went around the table to preview Vanderbilt athletics in the new year by giving their New Year’s wish lists, storylines to watch, recruits they are excited about and coaches who could exceed expectations.
December 31, 2021
With 2021 officially in the books, Vanderbilt athletics is set to embark on a clean slate in 2022. 2021 brought Commodore fans plenty of memories, including another College World Series appearance, an SEC men’s golf championship, an NCAA soccer tournament appearance and perhaps most notably, the announcement of the largest set of athletics facilities upgrades in school history.
But 2022 is primed to be an all-around improved year for all Commodores as a trio of young head coaches—Clark Lea, Shea Ralph and Althea Thomas—now all have their feet under them, recruiting classes grow and ground breaks on the Vandy United campaign.
The Vanderbilt Hustler Sports staff took a look at recruits they are excited about, gave their wish lists for various teams on campus, analyzed which coaches are primed for breakout seasons and provided storylines to watch in 2022 in the latest version of the Hustler Sports Roundtable.
WHAT’S ONE NEW YEAR’S WISH YOU HAVE FOR VANDERBILT ATHLETICS IN 2022?
Justin Hershey, Sports Editor
Quite literally, my wish for Vanderbilt athletics in 2022 is to see shovels—and a lot of them—in and around Jess Neely Drive when I return next fall for my first homecoming weekend. Athletic director Candice Storey Lee told the media in November that the plan was for the Vandy United campaign to kick off during the 2022 calendar year, with actual ground likely to break in the fall of the new year. I want to see that construction actually begin towards the beginning of football season. The faster actual ground breaks, the faster Commodore coaches can start using it as a cornerstone of their recruiting pitch. And since I won’t be a student anymore, feel free to detour walks around campus with construction all you want, Vanderbilt.
Brett Needelman, Staff Writer
My New Year’s wish for the Vanderbilt football and men’s basketball programs is simply to continue the work they are doing. In terms of the football program, Clark Lea is putting together increasingly stronger recruiting classes, which should put Vanderbilt in a position to be a defense-oriented SEC competitor. While the 2021 campaign certainly had some gut-wrenching losses, I believe Lea was still able to establish a strong foundation for the future. Similar to Lea, Jerry Stackhouse is also recruiting more impressive classes each year while also demonstrating excellent player development. Vanderbilt basketball has been incredibly unlucky in regard to injuries and transfers, but Stackhouse is building a program that can flirt with March relevance in the near future. Lastly, to Commodore Nation, my wish for you is to be patient and to trust the process.
Aiden Rutman, Staff Writer
An NCAA men’s basketball tournament berth. Vanderbilt hasn’t made the tournament since 2017, the third-longest streak among SEC teams. The Commodores entered the season with high hopes: they boasted the SEC Preseason Player of the Year in Scotty Pippen Jr., they landed two key transfers in Rodney Chatman and Liam Robbins and they had solid returning role players to round out the roster. Vanderbilt proved they can compete in the Diamond Head Classic over the holidays, taking down Hawai’i and BYU before the tournament was canceled due to health and safety protocols. Looking forward, the SEC is strong this year: Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology has eight teams qualifying for the postseason. While the Commodores aren’t currently one of those eight, a tournament invitation is well within the realm of possibility if Vanderbilt can perform up to expectations during the SEC portion of their schedule.
WHICH VANDERBILT HEAD COACH IS PRIMED TO TAKE THE BIGGEST STEP FORWARD IN 2022?
Andrew Wilf, Assistant Sports Editor
This year, I expect to see Clark Lea and his coaching staff take a giant leap in the 2022 season. After making a big splash in the 2022 recruiting class, Lea’s team will have a plethora of new talent all around. This class has 24 commits and is ranked 35th in the nation. In addition to having a promising freshman class, the Commodores will be more adjusted to Lea’s culture than in the 2021 season. The team lost a few student-athletes to the transfer portal, but the Commodores’ core players remain, especially in the quarterback room. Mike Wright and Ken Seals will lead the offense, and another year of experience will only help them in driving Vanderbilt towards a winning culture.
Jonah Barbin, Staff Writer
Shea Ralph. Ralph and co. head into 2022 and SEC play on a four-game winning streak and with a stellar 9-5 record on the season. It seems as if the winning pedigree that Ralph was a part of at UConn made the trip with her to Nashville, as the Commodores are an impressive 7-1 at home. Good teams defend home court, period. The Commodores have hit their stride as the calendar turns, and Ralph and her historically winning ways are primed to take the spotlight in 2022.
WHAT’S ONE VANDERBILT ATHLETICS STORYLINE TO WATCH IN 2022?
Bryce Smith, Deputy Sports Editor
What happens with Jerry Stackhouse? The third-year head coach will embark upon his most interesting SEC schedule yet in 2022, with a team that hopes to make some noise in the conference for the first time in his tenure. Stackhouse is at a bit of a fork in the road in his career at the moment—have a successful run in league play, make a postseason run and bring in the talented class of 2022 over the summer, and all of a sudden he has the program in great shape. On the other hand, struggle through the SEC and lose Scotty Pippen Jr. to the draft without making any noise in March and there starts to become more questions than answers popping up about year four. It will be a fascinating development over the first few months of 2022.
Sam Curtis, Assistant Sports Editor
Vanderbilt soccer has one of the more interesting team situations heading into the 2022 season. Just under a third of this year’s roster was made up of an important core of seniors and graduates, yet the group also had plenty of talented underclassmen who now look to uphold the program’s high standard moving forward. Cornerstones like Raegan Kelley, Ella Shamburger, Maddie Elwell, Madi Allen, Peyton Cutshall and Madiya Harriott are all on the list of players likely to move on. But, exciting freshmen and a strong rising upperclassmen class can give reassurance to head coach Darren Ambrose that the squad’s continual quest for hardware remains alive and well. Nevertheless, it won’t be easy to replace key contributors, which means Ambrose will have his work cut out for him—he’ll somehow have to find a winning formula among countless possibilities and combinations. Look forward to a fun fall. (As a bonus: my New Year’s wish is another VandyBoys College World Series title.)
Jaime Pérez, Staff Writer
One Vanderbilt athletics storyline to watch next year will be the incoming recruiting classes across campus. While the long-awaited facility upgrades will dominate headlines in 2022, several programs that have struggled in recent years are bringing in what could be transformative classes. In just his first year of recruiting for Vanderbilt, head football coach Clark Lea has secured a class that ranks among the best in the program’s history. On the hardwood, first-year women’s basketball head coach Shea Ralph is looking to build on her own momentum, as she brought in two top-100 recruits from the class of 2021 and is currently repeating that feat in her first full recruiting cycle with the class of 2022. In the same building, men’s basketball head coach Jerry Stackhouse has recruited the best class of his tenure by a significant margin, having signed three four-star recruits.
WHO IS ONE INCOMING CLASS OF 2022 RECRUIT OR A CLASS OF 2021 RECRUIT OF A SPRING SPORT YOU ARE EXCITED ABOUT WATCHING IN 2022?
Kavi Jakes, Sports Copy Editor
Carter Holton will be the X factor for the VandyBoys in 2022. The team needs a dependable starter to pair with Christian Little, and I’m eager to see how successfully the freshman fills that role. He impressed in the Black and Gold series, pitching 4 2/3 shutout innings for the Black Team in Game 1 against the likes of Enrique Bradfield Jr., Tate Kolwyck and Troy LaNeve. Out of the windup, Holton was spectacular, mixing a low-90s fastball with a devastating, Clayton Kershaw-eque curve. The lefty struggled with mechanics and location when pitching from the stretch, but was still able to register a scoreless outing against a lineup of VandyBoys. That’s an indication of the talent Holton brings to the team. I’m excited to see how Holton develops, and hope that he and Little can establish themselves as Vanderbilt’s next formidable starter duo.
Andy Carr, Staff Writer
I am excited to see Darren Agu next season on the gridiron, who will come to Nashville despite having offers from Notre Dame, Alabama and Tennessee. Vanderbilt was looking for size, athleticism and length in the 2022 recruiting class and got just that in Agu. The 6’6″, 220-pound edge rusher has the potential to be a force to be reckoned with on the field, and I am looking forward to seeing how he matches up against SEC competition. The Commodores’ 2022 recruiting class is the best that it has been since 2013, and Agu is set to be a leader in the class.
Matthew Shipley, Staff Writer
My high school basketball team spent two full days of practice solely devoted to stopping Malik Dia. Evidenced by our three losses to Ensworth that season, it didn’t matter. The four-star recruit from Nashville is now 6’8” and 230 lbs. and proves to have gotten even better during his senior year. While Dia’s outside shooting and dribbling abilities were somewhat limited earlier in his career, he has made great strides in those areas to become a dominant presence inside and outside of the paint. Combined with his notable basketball IQ and finishing ability around the rim, Dia has the potential to be an immediate impact player at Vanderbilt on both sides of the floor. I’ll be excitedly awaiting his arrival to Memorial Gymnasium in the fall as a key part of Jerry Stackhouse’s recruiting class of 2022 that is ranked No. 24 in the nation by 247Sports.