May Nation: Hometown Heroes
June 18, 2012
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TONY KEMP: Centennial
Arriving at Vanderbilt in the fall of 2010, Tony Kemp wrote on his freshman questionnaire that one of the reasons he had chosen to be a Commodore was "to go to Omaha" (and the College World Series).
Never mind that Vanderbilt had never been to the College World Series. Kemp already had called his shot months earlier.
"My mom and I were sitting on the couch, watching when Vanderbilt was playing Florida State [in the 2010 NCAA Super Regional]," Kemp said. "When [Vanderbilt] lost, we were pretty upset, but I remember saying to her, `It's okay, because next year is gonna be the year.'"
The 2011 Commodores, of course, did make history last June by defeating Oregon State in an NCAA Super Regional at Hawkins Field to earn the program's first trip to Omaha.
"That team was unbelievable," Kemp said. "From a pitching standpoint, from a hitting standpoint, we did so many things well. And we had amazing leadership from guys like Curt Casali, Sonny Gray, Grayson Garvin and Taylor Hill."
For his part, Kemp had an unbelievable year. He became only the second Commodore to be honored as the Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year by league coaches.
But Kemp is quick to acknowledge his teammates when asked about his personal accomplishments. Outgoing and confident, he accepts praise with a laugh as he shares credit with those around him.
"Winning SEC Freshman of the Year, that should be a team award," Kemp said. "There's no way that I get the hits or any other stat if we don't have the pitching or the defense. It's definitely a team award. It's very humbling to be in the same category as a Pedro Alvarez."
Kemp was named to the College World Series All-Tournament team after he batted .400 in VU's four games. His name also went into the record books when he recorded the first hit at TD Ameritrade Park in CWS history.
The Omaha fairy tale almost didn't come true for the Franklin native. He had originally committed to East Carolina University, the school where his brother Corey had been a second-team All-American in 2008. But the lure of going to school 15 miles away from his home was too great, and when Head Coach Tim Corbin offered him a scholarship, Tony decided Vanderbilt would be a better fit for him.
"Having your family come to games, you can't get much better than that," Kemp said. "This a great place to be, with Coach Corbin--all the coaches--and from an academic standpoint, you can't get better than Vanderbilt."
Even with his busy schedule, Kemp still finds a little time to get home. He estimates that he has been home four times during the spring semester.
"You definitely can't take that for granted," Kemp said. "My mom makes good home-cooked meals--loaded mashed potatoes, carrots, a steak on the grill. And she makes some good sweet tea--that's definitely my favorite."
Kemp has taken fellow sophomores Conrad Gregor and Joel McKeithan down to Franklin to see his high school, Centennial. He also makes sure to get by Showtime Sports Academy when time allows. Kemp has trained at the batting cage of that facility--run by major league scout Tony Naile--since it opened in 2007.
There he hits with former high school teammates like Tyson Ashcraft, who plays at Lipscomb, or Matt Williams, currently of the St. Louis Cardinals organization. He also met Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Ben Zobrist in the cages at SSA.
"We'd hit and talk," Kemp said. "Ben has been a great Christian guy to get to know, and to see him in the Tampa Bay Rays organization doing great things, it's just awesome to know that he's a down-to-earth guy."
Kemp's positive nature and his enthusiasm seem to permeate everything he does, both on the field and off. On top of his outstanding skill set, his attitude has made him an invaluable member of Vanderbilt's baseball team.
"Tony's value goes well beyond the white lines," Corbin said. "He is an energy source for our team. He does a lot of things to help us win and is fun to watch play."
RYAN LIPMAN: Second-generation VU netter
Ryan Lipman was born at Vanderbilt Hospital. His mother, the former Lisa Tamborello, was a four-year Vanderbilt tennis letter winner. His parents started him in the game at a young age.
"They used to go out and hit when I was maybe 3 years old," Lipman said. "And they just gave me a tennis racket and fed me a few balls, and that was that."
By the time Lipman was heading toward eighth grade, he was already a lauded junior player. The decision was made to home-school Lipman, his brother and sister, partly because the travel required by junior tennis was interrupting Ryan's studies at school. Home-schooling provided a chance to fit tennis and school into his routine.
"The flexibility was unbeatable," Lipman said. "I could wake up and play tennis, come home and do school work, then go back out to the court again in the afternoon."
Lipman was consistently ranked in the nation's top 30 throughout his junior career. By his senior year of high school, he was ranked as the No. 3 player in his class by Tennisrecruiting.net. When it came time to head to college, Lipman had his choice of a number of universities in the southeast, including Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Georgia, Georgia Tech and Virginia. Even with a former Commodore tennis player in his household, the decision wasn't clear cut from the beginning.
"Mom went to Vandy," Lipman said. "But my dad went to Tennessee. I grew up a split fan. In the end, [Vanderbilt] was just the best combination of tennis and academics, and I felt that the coaching staff allowed me the best opportunity to play professionally after college.
"My parents were actually pushing me away from Nashville to try and see a new city, get a new experience, but everything was too good to move from here."
Lipman played at No. 1 singles for the Commodores from day one, earning first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors as a freshman and sophomore. Last year he missed the Commodores' final two matches and pulled out of the NCAA Singles Championships due to injury. He would have hip surgery in May.
Doctors told Lipman that recovery from the surgery usually takes nine months to a year. But he was determined to return sooner, working tirelessly to rehab and get back on the court. After not playing during the fall season, Lipman entered January's SEC Indoors in Lexington, Ky., but was forced to retire in the first set of his first match.
In March, the decision was made that Lipman would take a medical redshirt. He's now closer to 100% physically but will not burn a year of eligibility in the season's last month. Still, from the sideline, Lipman has remained a vital part of the Commodores' squad, helping coach VU's younger players through their matches.
"[Head Coach Ian Duvenhage and assistant coach Jamie Hunt] let me do that in the fall," Lipman said. "I went to two of the fall tournaments, sat on the bench with the guys and helped coach. They thought it would be a great learning experience for me to develop my own thoughts and how to broadcast that to my player."
Senior Charlie Jones, who took over the No. 1 position vacated by Lipman, praised his teammate's sideline contribution.
"He's been invaluable to the team this year," Jones said. "He's probably not used to the off-to-the-side role, but he's definitely embraced it."
And while Lipman lauds Jones for doing "an incredible job" at the No. 1 position, Jones knows that having Lipman back next year will mean a lot to the Commodores.
"He's out there beating us every day in practice. We can't wait to get him back."
LAUREN STRATTON: Independence
Just shy of her 15 birthday and about to enter high school, Lauren Stratton moved from the Pacific Northwest to Spring Hill in 2005. The first order of business for the three-time Oregon Junior Girl's Golf State Champion was to find a new home course. At the time, the Vanderbilt Legends Club in Franklin was half-public, and Stratton took up residency on Legends' South Course.
After capturing two TSSAA Class AAA individual state championships, Stratton opted to stay in the area to play her collegiate golf. While she feels right at home at Legends, she doesn't feel that her prep experience there gives her too big of an edge these days.
"I really didn't play much of the north side, which is our main course," Stratton said. "It's just more of a comfort level. I don't go home very often, because things are pretty busy at school. But it is an option.Every once in a while, I like to get home for chicken pot pie. A home-cooked meal is nice."
This season, Stratton climbed all the way to No. 3 in the nation in Golfweek's individual rankings after posting a stroke average of 70.8 during the fall. Her average went up slightly this spring after she carded an 86 in the final round of an event in Louisiana. It was later discovered that she had played with a kidney stone that would require surgery. Stratton would recover quickly and barely miss a step, pacing the Commodores at their very next event less than a month later.
With Legends hosting the national championship last month, Stratton was excited for the opportunity to play in front of her home fans, many of whom cannot make it to September's Mason Rudolph Championship. But the junior knows that her squad must first take care of business at the NCAA Regional championship to ensure they are still playing in the last week of May.
"[Friends from high school] support me throughout the year," Stratton said. "But they don't get to see me play very often, so it would be nice to show them what I can do on that stage. We just have to get through regionals first and make sure we get there."
WESLEY JOHNSON: Montgomery Bell Academy
Going through the college selection process as a prep star at local Montgomery Bell Academy, Wesley Johnson made a concerted effort to keep Vanderbilt's home city advantage out of his decision. But since joining the Commodores, he admits that being close to home certainly has its advantages.
"I tried to make that not a factor, but now being here for three or four years, it's nice having my parents here," Johnson said. "I see them a lot. I kind of put pressure on them to make sure they're taking care of me. I think my mom misses it, so I take advantage of that. But I made sure to not take that into account when I was deciding."
Those advantages include being able to bring the guys over for an occasional home-cooked meal. When the Johnsons host offensive line dinners at their home in Forest Hills, the menu varies. But Johnson's father, David, is usually grilling. "Chicken, barbecue, he'll mix it up, and my mom will make the sides."
On the field, Johnson has been a mainstay on the offensive line for the past two seasons. After redshirting in 2009, he was named the SEC's Offensive Lineman of the Week in his third career game, a 28-14 victory at Ole Miss.
Last season, Johnson started all 13 games, moving mainly between center and left tackle. His versatility has been invaluable for a sometimes undermanned offensive line. Entering his third season as a starter, Johnson knows he must be a leader for his position group.
"I've developed and seen my role change," Johnson said. "When I was the young guy, I was just worrying about myself. Now I'm thinking about myself, but I'm also trying to help Coach Hand out as much as I can and give the younger guys additional support, and maybe a different perspective. I just want to help them do what the coaches want."
Johnson is continuing MBA's legacy of producing VU football standouts. Hall of Fame quarterback Bill Wade, linebackers Hunter Hillenmeyer and Moses Osemwegie, and placekicker Bryant Hahnfeldt--VU's career scoring leader--are among those who have chosen to attend college just down West End Avenue from their high school.
As someone who appreciates the benefits of being a local product, Johnson hopes he can help persuade others in the area to support their local team by "showing people in Nashville that they've got a pretty good SEC team right in the heart of the city."
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