(Note: This article is part of a series, by Jeff Dahn, that highlights specific collegiate baseball programs going into the 2011 season. To view the articles on other schools in this series please click here.)
The University of Connecticut baseball team plays its home games at tidy J.O. Christian Field, which is located at an outer edge on the Storrs, Conn., campus in an area where all of the school’s athletic facilities are located.
J.O. Christian Field – and the rest of the UConn campus – lies roughly 90 miles south of Fenway Park in Boston. It’s about 150 miles north of Yankee Stadium and Citi Field in New York City. And if you’re up for a little bit more of a road-trip, it’s about 250 miles northwest of Philadelphia’s Citizen Bank Park.
Those famous Major League open-air ballparks have something in common with J.O. Christian Field, in that they share the same regional and seasonal weather patterns. That’s something UConn head baseball coach Jim Penders likes to point out to potential recruits who might be considering southern or western schools at which to play baseball and further their educations.
“Most of the kids we recruit want to play in the big leagues, just like I did and just like most kids that play the game – they dream of playing in the big leagues one day,” Penders said. “Like we tell all the recruits that are looking at schools down south and are (also) looking at us, at some point you want to play in Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park … and they’re playing in outdoor parks on April 1st. At some point you’re going to have to learn to play when it’s not exactly 72 (degrees) and sunny.”
That bait might be difficult to swallow for a lot of recruits, but Penders has spent the past seven years building the UConn program into a Northeast regional and Big East Conference power, and he won’t let the fact that Storrs enjoys four very distinct seasons deter him.
“We refuse to allow ourselves to talk about the weather as an excuse,” Penders said in a recent telephone conversation with Perfect Game while admittedly looking out his window at 30 inches of snow on the ground in Storrs. “I think it’s something that separates us … and I think our geography can be an advantage and not a disadvantage.”
Penders pointed out that the University of Connecticut campus is about an hour-and-a-half drive from as many as a dozen other Division I baseball schools.
“Our geography can be a heck of an advantage from an educational standpoint,” he said. “We can take class and not have to worry about leaving campus until noon time to go play Central Connecticut in a 3 o’clock game.”
UConn also has top-notch indoor facilities that enable the team to train the year-around. The Huskies have access to the football team’s indoor facility in January and February and also have an indoor batting and pitching facility.
The success of UConn’s men’s and women’s basketball teams has helped create a national indemnity for the school – the women’s team has won back-to-back NCAA championships and the men’s team won an NCAA title as recently as 2004 – and the school’s football team played in the BCS Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1. The university has been ranked in the top-25 academically in the national rankings released annually by U.S. News & World Report.
“We’ve certainly drawn attention from outside our region sometimes better than from inside our region,” Penders said, noting he has a couple of talented players on his roster this season from California. “We like to point to kids like that who are willing to take a chance and come to Connecticut.”
The 2010 baseball season was one of the most successful in UConn history and was the culmination of what Penders had been building toward in his first seven years in Storrs.
Lifted by a 22-game win streak that ran from March 27 through April 27 and included 13 straight Big East victories, the Huskies finished 48-16 overall (20-6 BEC) and advanced to an NCAA Regional for the first time since 1994 (they were last at the College World Series in 1979). They hosted the regional at Dodd Stadium in Norwich, Conn., and lost two of the three games they played.
Eight Big East schools, including conference champion Louisville, earned NCAA postseason berths in 2010.
After the season, infielders Mike Olt and Pierre LePage were chosen in the 2010 MLB June Amateur Draft. Olt was taken in the 1stround (49th overall) by the Texas Rangers and LePage in the 13thround by the Chicago Cubs. Penders was honored as the Big East, ECAC, ABCA/Diamond Northeast and NEIBA coach of the year.
The Huskies are eagerly anticipating the start of the 2011 season based on their record-breaking accomplishments last spring. They are ranked in the top-20 in most of the early preseason polls and were a nearly unanimous preseason pick to win the Big East regular season championship.
“Our expectations are the same as they’ve always been since I’ve been associated with the program,” said Penders, who is beginning his eighth season as head coach after seven years as an assistant and four as a player. “They’re exactly the same as they’ve always been which is basically to win the Big East Conference. The thing that has changed is now if you do win the Big East Conference, now you’re in the conversation to get to Omaha (and the CWS).
“Other people’s expectations have certainly changed outside of the program, but nothing’s changed inside. We always expect to be competing for that Big East championship every year.”
UConn returns six position players who played in at least 50 games in 2010 and nine pitchers who made at least 11 appearances, including its top four starters. The top returners are junior outfielder George Springer, senior first baseman Mike Nemeth, junior utility Kevin Vance and senior right-hander Matt Barnes. All four were named to the 2011 Preseason All-Big East Team by league coaches.
Springer hit .337 with 18 home runs, 62 RBIs and 33 stolen bases in 2010. He is the 2011 Preseason Big East Player of the Year, and Perfect Game projects the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder to be the No. 3 overall selection in the 2011 Draft.
Nemeth led the Huskies in hitting in 2010 at .386 with 15 home runs and 84 RBIs. Vance hit .322 with seven home runs and 36 RBIs.
Barnes is the 2011 Preseason Big East Pitcher of the Year after finishing 8-3 with a 3.92 ERA in 82.2 innings (13 starts) in 2010. Perfect Game projects him to be the No. 9 overall selection in the 2011 Draft.
Barnes isn’t the only solid arm returning for the Huskies. Senior left-hander Elliott Glynn – who came to UConn all the way from Long Beach, Calif. – finished 7-3 with a 2.99 ERA in 15 starts, and senior left-hander Greg Nappo (8-5, 4.44 ERA, 15 starts) and senior right-hander Robert Van Woert (6-1, 4.84 ERA, 11 starts) were also effective starters. Vance was 1-0 with 2.41 ERA and eight saves as the Huskies’ closer.
All those returning players – most of who participated in Perfect Game events while in high school – had Penders cautiously optimistic coming out of the Huskies’ fall session.
“We’re all undefeated right now. You’ve got 300 teams that are undefeated,” he said with a laugh. “I think anybody you talk to is going to say they had a great fall.”
While Penders continues to build the program into an elite one nationally, his biggest concern lies much closer to home. Seventeen of the 35 players listed on UConn’s early 2011 roster are from the state of Connecticut, but in Penders’ mind, that’s not nearly enough.
“Our biggest challenge is the last converts are the people who think they know you the best, and those are our in-state kids,” Penders said. “We’re still losing some of our in-state kids to folks down south and out west that we don’t feel we really should be losing. That’s kind of our last frontier.”
Then Penders offered a definitive statement that he said with the utmost sincerity:
“If we kept the best in-state kids in Connecticut playing for their flagship university, we’d be winning not only Big East championships but national championships. There’s enough talent in the state – it’s a good baseball state – to do that.”
Winning a national championship is certainly a lofty goal but Penders isn’t among those who think it can’t be done. No one ever thought the UConn women’s basketball team would win 90 straight games, but it did just that over a two-and-a-half year period.
For that matter, no one probably ever thought the Huskies’ baseball team could win 22 straight during the heart of its Big East Conference schedule, but it did just that last spring.
Penders knows the only way to attain those goals is to keep out-working everyone else.
“I’m not smart enough to figure out another way to do it,” he said. “This place was founded by farmers back in 1881 … and we’re based in those roots of those farmers trying to become better farmers. Stay humble with a blue collar work ethic and let our work do our talking for us.
“The way to do it is just through hard work and attention to detail, and having the best attitude, concentration and effort we can have every single day in everything that we do. Hopefully that’s going to be good enough.”
What follows is a list of current players on UConn’s 2011 roster who either participated in Perfect Game events or created a PG profile while still in high school. Click on the player’s name to view his complete PG profile:
Anthony Aceto – PG National Underclass-Main Event
Nick Ahmed – PG NE Top Prospect/PG WWBA
John Andreoli – PG NE Top Prospect
Matt Barnes – PG NE Top Prospect/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Pat Butler – PG WWBA
Stephan Catalina – PG WWBA
Dan Feehan – PG NE Top Prospect
Billy Ferriter – PG NE Top Prospect
Mike Friel – PG WWBA
Ryan Fuller – PG NE Top Prospect
Ted Hurvul – PG WWBA
Will Jolin – PG WWBA
Kurt Marut – PG WWBA
LJ Mazzilli – PG Pre-Draft/PG NE Top Prospect/PG WWBA
Ryan Moore – PG NE Top Prospect/PGWWBA
Mike Nemeth – PG WWBA
Joe Pavone – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Kevin Solomon – PG WWBA
George Springer – PG NE Top Prospect/PG WWBA
John Sulzicki – PG WWBA
Robert Van Woert – PG National/PG NE Top Prospect/
Tom Verdi – PG WWBA
Zack Walsh – PG World/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Brian Ward – PG WWBA
Michael Zaccardo – PG World Showcase/PG WWBA
If there is a college program that you want PG to do a story on, please feel free to let us know. Email Jeff Dahn at firstname.lastname@example.org.