Technically, trades don’t exist in college athletics. It’s not as if one coach with a need can call up another and pitch a trade offer. But the Vanderbilt and Nevada baseball programs came as close as you can get to that this offseason when Kiambu Fentress transferred to Nevada.
The move was precipitated by Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin, a three-time national coach of the year, who called Nevada’s T.J. Bruce in the offseason when he was looking for a landing spot for Fentress, a speedy outfielder.
“I was very, very fortunate to get the call from Corbs and he said, ‘We have a guy, and I think he’d fit what you do. I think he fits what you need and what you’re looking for,’” Bruce said. “There are a few coaches in the world when they call and tell you something, you do what they tell you. He’s one of them. I called Kiambu right away. We struck up as conversation. We flew him out. He spent about 24 hours here and he committed before he left. I thought that was a great telling sign of what’s to come.”
Fentress, who is eligible to play this season as a graduate transfer, is the biggest offensive wild card for Nevada, which opens the season Friday at Portland. Exactly what Fentress will bring to Nevada in 2020 is hard to know. While he played the last four seasons at Vanderbilt, a national powerhouse and defending NCAA champs, Fentress' field time was limited. In 37 games, he went 2-of-17 with two singles and two steals.
Fentress, a quick-twitch 6-foot, 180-pound outfielder, will get the chance to show his skills this season.
“I just want to have fun,” Fentress said. “That’s the main thing. Have fun, play every day and just enjoy baseball. You can’t put too much on it. I’ve learned and seen other people go through it and sometimes it can become bothersome, the 56-game grind, the process, but I just want to have fun and enjoy it because it doesn’t last forever.”
It’s been a long time since Fentress, a Nashville native, has been able to play a full season. He missed his senior season of high school with a torn labrum and torn meniscus. After a year at a prep school in Connecticut and a three-week stay at Western Kentucky, Fentress redshirted at Vanderbilt in 2016 before playing sparingly from 2017-19. Aside from summer ball, the last time Fentress played a full season was 2013 when he hit .300 with 19 steals in 29 games as a high school junior.
Corbin, who is one college baseball’s most respected coaches, thought highly enough of Fentress to try and get him to a school where he can play to his potential. So he called Bruce to see if he would be willing to give Fentress a shot with the Wolf Pack.
“He asked me, ‘Would you mind going to Nevada?’” Fentress said of his discussion with Corbin. “I said, ‘I would not mind going to Nevada.’ He knew him, and I trust Corbin, so I didn’t need anything else.”
Fentress will compete for playing time in Nevada’s outfield and should be a plus-defender and strong base runner. Fentress has elite athleticism. He was an all-state wide receiver who won four state football titles. His father was an All-American and Hall of Fame football player at Elon. His brother, Nantambu-Akil, played football for Miami and was the team’s most valuable walk-on for two seasons.
Kiambu's chosen sport was baseball, where he played a postgraduate season at Cheshire Academy before his four years at Vanderbilt, where he was known for keeping the dugout loose, including in-game yoga sessions and rock-paper-scissor battles. Last year’s fun ended with Vanderbilt winning its second national championship.
“I can’t really put it into words to be honest with you,” Fentress said of the 2019 season. “It was very fun. You hate to see it end because the ride was so fun. It was more about the journey than the destination. You can feel it from fall to spring all the way through. It’s a wonderful feeling. I hope these guys get to experience the same thing because I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Bruce said one of the appeals of adding Fentress was his experience in a winning clubhouse. The Commodores made a Super Regional in three of Fentress’ four seasons on campus. Nevada, which was picked to finish third in the MW in the preseason poll, is looking for its first NCAA Regional berth since 2000.
“When we talk Omaha or a Regional, he’s done it,” Bruce said. “Nobody else in this program, and this is no knock, but nobody else has done that. They’re all looking in the room and saying, ‘That’s great. I want to do that. How do we do that?’ There’s at least somebody in that clubhouse from the coach to the team who may be able to bridge the gap a little bit and say, ‘This is how or why.’ I think the maturity in that regard and his winning ways will bring a lot to our program.”
Fentress said moving from Nashville to Reno has been “a very big adjustment” and credited his new teammates for helping him in that process. He’s excited for the chance at regular playing time. Ideally, he’ll return to an NCAA Regional this season, only this time as a full-time player.
“That’d be dope,” Fentress said. “That’s the plan. We just need to stay consistent every day, handle our business and the results will take care of themselves. We can’t worry about the final destination. We just have to worry about today and then tomorrow we’ll worry about tomorrow and the results will be there.”
Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.