OMAHA, NEB/WILMINGTON — Nearly two weeks after celebrating with his teammates as the best collegiate baseball team in the entire country, Wilmington resident Jackson Gillis was able to reflect upon the National Championship, his season and three-year career at Vanderbilt University.
"It was awesome," he said last Wednesday afternoon from his home back in Wilmington. "It was what we worked so hard for all season. It was what we envisioned ourselves doing and winning the title was so special and it's something that I'll never forget. To be able to do something that special with your best friends is amazing. There's not another group of guys who I would want to accomplish something like that with."
This is the second national title for the Commodores, the other coming in 2011. The 8-2 victory over a surprised Michigan team in game three of the series put a stamp on an incredible season. Vanderbilt finished with a 59-12 overall record with two of those losses coming in separate best-out-of-three series during their championship run, including the finale versus Michigan.
"It is difficult to win regardless of how good of a team that you have," said Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin. "We played well all year but I think it's tough to finish something off being one of 300 teams (in the country) especially being a highly ranked team and having the bulls-eye on your back all season. We were ranked number one in a lot of pre-season polls, so the level of consistency and the level of awareness that these kids had themselves was certainly a special ingredient.
"Everytime our backs were against the wall, the kids responded in a very positive fashion and that was also fun to watch."
This season ended a three-year career for Gillis, who came to VU after an incredible four-year career at WHS.
"My first connection to (Jackson) was with Walter Beede, who is the Dad of Tyler, who previously pitched for us (and is now pitching for the San Francisco Giants)," explained Corbin. "Walter had a connection with (Jackson's father) Joe Gillis. Walter had always said that (Jackson) had a special arm so we started recruiting him when he was in the tenth grade. I remember when he was playing quarterback for the (JV) Football team for Wilmington High School. We went there to see him (pitch) and we loved his delivery and loved the way the ball came out of his hand.
“Then it was just a matter of the years to come and deciding if (adding Jackson) was a right fit for both him and for us. Towards the middle to latter part of his junior year, we decided to go ahead and offer him an opportunity and thank goodness he took it. The rest is it. He came here and he was one of those Massachusetts kids that we enjoyed recruiting and it's worked out very well."
Gillis appeared in 16 games in the 2017 season, 20 in 2018 and just seven this year. He was 0-0 with a 3.60 ERA in his first year, 4-1 with a 4.81 ERA last year and then had a 5.14 ERA this season. Towards the latter half of last season, Gillis dominated as a relief pitcher, not allowing a run and just three extra base hits in his last six appearances.
"He really came on in the latter half (of last season)," said Corbin. "He was really throwing the ball well. He has special stuff, he really does. He has a very good fastball and a very good breaking ball too and that's a lot of electricity to his ball. He was at a point where he was facing some very good competition on the road and he was throwing quite well. He just had some really good stuff (during that stretch)."
This year though, Gillis threw just seven innings, which included giving up four earned runs, while walking five and striking out seven. His command was off a bit, but Corbin said that was mostly because of the inconsistency of getting into games.
"He was dinged up a little bit at the beginning of the season so we had to cut him down a bit," said Corbin. "But then as we got into the spring, it was just that we had others who had pitched more than he had and you have a kid like Jack Gillis who has the type of stuff that he does so why isn't he pitching a little bit more? Those innings just ended up going to kids who at that time were the hot hands. Jack was one of those kids who we planned on getting into games but it was just we couldn't find a lot of time for him."
Still through the seven games, Gillis still had his electric stuff – a 94 mile per hour heater, a tremendous curveball, a good change-up, while he has developed a slider.
"He can get it up there for sure," said Corbin.
While Gillis has always had the "stuff" on the mound, he will be the first to admit that he needed some improvement in other areas.
"Going to Vanderbilt helped me so much," said Gillis. "It's such a great academic school and obviously the baseball is great too. Going in, it was a lot more than I had expected. (My time there) made me grow up in so many ways whether it's how to communicate better with people, how to go about baseball everyday and about treating others. There was just so many areas that I needed to improve upon, especially off the field. Coach Corbin is such a big reason why I matured so much. I have just learned so much over the last three years.
"I'm just so thankful that I had an opportunity to come into such a great school and program, and do well both academically and athletically and off the field as well. Going from a public school to a Division 1 collegiate program is a big jump and the support I had support from the entire athletic staff, the academic advisors, the tutors and just everyone. They gave me all of the tools to be successful. Looking back over the three years, I have realized how much Vanderbilt University has given me and it really is a blessing."
Gillis added that Corbin has been like "a second father to me."
"Coach Corbin is just so awesome," said Gillis. "He really helped me so much with baseball, he has helped me off the field, he has helped me grow up a lot since I first got to the school. He's one of the top influences I have ever had in my life. He has always had my back, he has always supported me through everything and he has always done the best he could for me. I am just so grateful that he came into my life and my years with him at Vanderbilt.
“Without Coach Corbin, I can guarantee that I would not be the person I am today. I just can't explain how thankful I am for him. We have a great relationship. I know he will always be there for me. Being so far from home, he was almost like a second father to me. He helped me with so much more than just baseball. He was just so supportive of everything, so helpful, so caring and I'm just so grateful to have him in my life."
Before Gillis expressed his full gratitude towards arguably the greatest collegiate baseball coach, he said first and foremost, the credit of his success in all aspects goes to his parents, Joe and Andrea.
"Growing up, I always loved baseball. It's always been a dream of mine to go to Vanderbilt and to get there and play there," he said. "I just feel so blessed to be able to play in a program like that and to play for someone like Coach Corbin. Just to be able to live out my dream like that, is just such a blessing. I never would have thought when I was in high school that I would be in the position that I am now. All of the hard work over the years and all of the people in my life who have done everything to help me get to the position that I am in now, is a really a blessing. It starts with my parents. All of the support that they have given me from little league to high school and to college, they have done everything. They have gone to all of my games and they are the reasons why I'm in the position that I am now. I can't be thankful enough to both of them as well as all of the other people who have helped me get to this point."
The point today, is three years of attending classes and pitching for a top rate college, and being a part of a national championship club.
"It was a really good series and Michigan played us really well," he said. "After we lost that first game, we never seemed to lose confidence and never lost sight on what type of team we are and what we are capable of doing. We just needed to focus on what we had to do over those next two days, stay centered and stay loose."
After Vanderbilt won the two must-win games to capture the title and the team had some days to celebrate, Gillis decided it was time to take the next step.
"I believe he has decided to play professional baseball," said Corbin. "It's something that he has dreamed about every since he was a little kid. He's that type of kid who can jump into another system fast. I thought over the last month here with us, that he was really starting to find it again at the end of the year.
“He's a special kid. He's done so well academically and he has just grown a lot as a person and as a player. I really enjoyed being around him. I think (maturing) happens here at Vanderbilt but I think it really did with him. He's changed his body, he's a good looking kid and his personality has grown.
“It's great that he is feeling really good about himself right now with what he is going academically and athletically, and now having a chance to pitch professionally."