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Justin Blood’s hunch on outfielder George Springer couldn’t have been better.
A few seasons ago, and well before Connecticut became the national name it is today, Huskies head coach Jim Penders sent Blood, his recruiting coordinator, on the road to take a look at several in-state prospects. Springer was on Blood’s to-do list.
After watching Springer man the outfield for his prep school, Avon Old Farms School in Avon, Conn., Blood reported back to Penders and described the outfielder as dynamic, and also described how the ball seemed to have a different sound off the bat.
Blood’s scouting report piqued Penders’ interest. And soon after, Penders packed up the car with his son Hank on a quest to get his own glimpse of this dynamic outfielder.
It didn’t take Penders long to figure out which direction to go on Springer. The answer was perfectly clear to him, and especially his young son, the Huskies had to recruit and sign Springer.
“My son was four years old at the time, and he asked me who that guy in center field was. He said that’s going to be my favorite Husky someday,” Penders said. “That was kind of the point I realized we had to get this guy. He’s got that wow factor involved and just did some things back then you just don’t see everyday.”
The Huskies proceeded to put the full court press on Springer, and the outfielder wasted little time committing and signing with his home state institution. He was determined to try to turn the Huskies into a winner.
“When I was first getting recruited by UCONN, he [Penders] said he had guys that wanted to be a part of something special, to essentially build something from the ground up,” Springer said. “That kind of mentality was something I really embraced. I wanted to help build a program.”
Despite having a solid senior high school season, Springer only was drafted in the 48th round by the Twins in the 2008 MLB draft. Instead of signing for little money, he chose to attend college with hopes of improving his game.
“I knew then I was extremely young and had a lot to learn about baseball, and even life itself,” he said. “I wanted to develop as a baseball player and learn from the other older guys in the program. It was going to be a learning experience for me.”
Springer had some major transitioning to do upon arrival at Connecticut. He went to a smaller high school, and had to deal with much larger class sizes and the responsibility of being away from his comfort zone.
Penders remembers the first five months of Springer’s collegiate career. Instead of talking baseball with the talented outfielder, the coach only remembers having conversations about school and class. He realized it was a huge adjustment for Springer.
“I think he’s really improved from a maturity standpoint since his freshman season. He grew up a lot in his first year and semester,” Penders said. “It’s hard for people to believe me when I say this, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t coach anything into him the first few months he was with the program.”
Perhaps Springer didn’t need extra attention as a freshman. He became the first player in Husky history to win Big East Rookie of the Year honors, hitting .358 with 14 doubles, three triples, 16 homers and 57 RBIs. He put himself on the map, but still had work to do considering the Huskies finished ninth in the Big East and 27-28 overall.
His sophomore campaign last season was much of the same. Springer batted .337 with 16 doubles, four triples, 18 homers and 62 RBIs, and cemented his name as one of the nation’s premier players, and one of MLB’s suddenly most sought prospects. He also helped the program take a significant step forward.
After two solid seasons with the Huskies, Springer enters his junior campaign as the top position prospect outside of Rice’s Anthony Rendon. He also is a preseason Perfect Game All-American. But more important than any individual accolades or signing bonus he might get offered in a few months, Springer is ready to help the Huskies get to the College World Series for the first time since 1979.
Connecticut won 48 games last season and hosted an NCAA Regional. It enters this season with a No. 16 national ranking, and a trip to Omaha wouldn’t be considered a surprise. To the Huskies, it’s to be expected. And for Springer, the dreams he had about the program before ever stepping foot on campus at Connecticut are on the verge of becoming realities.
“We have a shot to get to Omaha this season, and that dream that we once had as a program now can be a reality,” We just need to go out there and go through each pitch and at bat as if it might be our last. We have the players to get the job done, now it’s all about practicing what we preach.”
The upcoming season also hinges on Springer, a key leader for the Huskies, blocking out the fanfare surrounding his draft stock, and staying the course. That could be easier said than done considering Springer is our No. 3 overall draft prospect.
“It’s cool and all that people think highly of me, but right now, I’m not above a single guy on this team. I’m just focused on slowing my body down and letting things come to me this spring,” he said. “I still have a lot to improve on no matter what some say. I’m not in the big leagues yet. But I’ve realized the physical stuff is out of your hands, but that you have control of your mental game. I’m working on that.”
Three years ago, Justin Blood had a feeling Springer would be a perfect fit for the Huskies. Now, both Springer and the Huskies couldn’t be in better shape.
It all started with a simple hunch at a high school game.
Kendall Rogers is the managing editor of college baseball for Perfect Game USA and has covered the sport for over 10 seasons. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org