NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As Zander Wiel grew from promising baseball prospect to standout first baseman for 20th-ranked Vanderbilt, both parents followed him every step of the way.
Thing is, mother Connie Wiel became the "baseball mom" that drove son to all the practices and games, home and away. She was there to congratulate the successes and console the failures. Meanwhile, Zander’s father, Randy Wiel, had to keep up with his son from halfway around the world. During those spring baseball seasons, he was coaching professional basketball in The Netherlands and China from 2004-13.
Notice there’s no year 2014 to add to that that decade-long run of coaching overseas for Wiel, the former UNC-Asheville and Middle Tennessee head coach who played for and was assistant coach under legendary coach Dean Smith at North Carolina.
Despite having an offer to return to China to coach professionally this season, the elder Wiel decided enough was enough. Indeed, he was going to stay home this winter and spring and watch his son play an entire season of baseball, whether it be college or high school, for the very first time.
"It has been awesome just having him here to watch me because he hasn’t been able to see me play on a regular basis probably since summer ball when I was 13," said Wiel, whose Commodores host one of 16 NCAA Tournament regionals. "Having my father home for the games is cool, but I like it more just because he is able to be here with my mom. She has been on her own a lot."
Not that the Wiels weren’t in constant contact while continents apart. Connie and Randy talked on the telephone nearly every day, while all three communicated often via Skype and e-mail. Mother and son traveled to Holland once or twice a year, while husband/father would also come home during the season while coaching teams in the Dutch Basketball League in search of the Europe Cup title.
"My biggest regret is that I missed him playing basketball and baseball at Blackman High School (in nearby Murfreesboro, Tenn.)," said Wiel, who is a native of Curacao and speaks six languages. "Everybody was telling me how great he was. As a father you want to see your kid develop and all that. I missed him playing basketball, especially. He did very well in basketball, but chose baseball. North Carolina and Tennessee wanted him for baseball, but (Vanderbilt) coach (Tim) Corbin developed a strong relationship with Zander. He does a great job with his kids."
After redshirting as a freshman in 2012, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Wiel burst on the Vanderbilt baseball scene late last year and was named to the All-Southeastern Conference Freshman Team. His home run in the heartbreaking NCAA Super Regional finals loss to visiting Louisville was the team’s only run of the game.
This season, as a third-year sophomore, he ranks top five in five different offensive categories for the Commodores, including a team-high five home runs. He is also fifth in batting average (.274), fourth in runs scored (34) and third in RBI (35) and slugging percentage (.447)
"I sense the normal growth (in Zander) that takes place with a young man that has been in the program for three years," said Corbin, whose team is hosting an NCAA Regional for the third time in four years and fourth time overall. The Commodores’ only trip to the College World Series came in 2011. "I could probably sense more that (his father) wasn’t around when he was younger. The influence was strictly his mom, and the males that were around him that had a voice to him were his high school coach and myself at the time. But a great deal of maturity has taken place from that time."
For that, Corbin and Randy Wiel not only credit Zander, but Connie Wiel as well.
"It’s really great having Randy around so I don’t have to drive home by myself after the games," she said with a laugh. "It is great for Zander. He just likes having his dad there. Having him home all the time makes it a little more normal."
It has also become normal for the Commodores to be among the elite teams in college baseball while competing in the difficult SEC, which had a record 10 teams get NCAA Regional bids this year.
Last season, the Commodores were ranked No. 1 in the country for much of the year and ran roughshod through the SEC en route to the regular-season title. That included matching a school record in wins with a 54-12 overall record, but more impressive was the league-record 26-3 finish in conference play. The Commodores won every series during the regular season. But after breezing through the NCAA regional at home, the Commodores were denied a trip back to the College World Series in the Super Regional upset loss to Louisville.
"The fortunate or unfortunate thing about this whole college baseball dynamic here at the end," Corbin said, "you can have the best team, and if you go sour for a short time, you’re done. That’s it. And you can be a team like (NCAA tourney entry) Youngstown State and win 16 games and you feel good about yourself. And the next thing you know, you can go on this tremendous run that can captivate the college audience."
Although it fell short of the standards set by last year’s team, Corbin feels good about this year’s model heading into NCAA tourney play. Though the Commodores went 1-2 at last week’s SEC Tournament and were outscored 18-3 in consecutive losses to LSU and Ole Miss, Corbin seems .
"I think we needed to get away from the SEC," Corbin said. "It’s like having the in-laws at the house for a long period of time and you say, âHey, when are they going to leave?’ I think it is a refresher to get away from that tournament. We had a great resume, but I think it is understated in a lot of different ways. I hope we can prove that point as we go forward."
Zander Wiel, with both parents looking on, will likely help in that regard for Corbin’s Commodores.