By Matt McDonough, Sports Editor
UConn men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun was late.
Calhoun was later than expected to a scheduled mid-week media availability meeting in the underbelly of Gampel Pavilion. After the coach emerged from the blocked off men’s basketball hallway, he explained to the press that baseball coach Jim Penders and a couple of recruits had visited his office for a meeting. Calhoun commended the job Penders was doing at UConn before talking about his own team who, although struggling at the time, was on its way to a national championship.
Of course the baseball team didn’t win a national championship this summer. And with the men’s basketball team winning a third NCAA championship this spring, it still wouldn’t hurt if Penders took his recruits to talk to a Hall of Fame coach about the prestige of UConn athletics and the progress the baseball team has made in recent years.
But there will come a time when Penders won’t have to take his prospective athletic students to visit a basketball arena.
Although the Huskies fell to the defending champion Gamecocks at South Carolina in the Super Regional last weekend, it was just another needed step in the right direction. Dubbed the “Pride of New England,” UConn played in front of a national television audience on ESPN 2 and ESPNU in the program’s first Super Regional. Although the Huskies have made the College World Series five times, it’s been 32 years since the last trip. A much different and much easier format favored Northeast schools then, now it’s nearly impossible for a New England school to make it to Omaha. Still, Omaha was the Huskies season goal.
Although UConn didn’t achieve two of its goals, the College World Series and a Big East tournament championship, the Huskies still captured the conference regular season title and the Clemson Regional. With its back to the wall after a 13-1 defeat at the hands of Coastal Carolina on the Regional’s first day., UConn climbed back. The Huskies went on to beat in-state foe Sacred Heart 13-3, eliminated the Chanticleers 12-6 then pushed Clemson to the brink of elimnation with a 7-6 walkoff win. Ryan Fuller’s game-winning hit made it a winner-take-all Regional Final on Monday June 6.
June 6 is famous for the beginning of the World War II D Day invasion. June 6, 2011 may go down as the greatest day in program history. The Huskies romped the Tigers 14-1 on their home field. During the game, George Springer and Matt Barnes were both selected in the MLB First-Year Player Draft’s first round. Eight other players would be selected over the next two days. UConn was going to its first Super Regional with its two highest draft selections ever.
The run, however, would end as the Huskies fell to South Carolina the next weekend 5-1 and 8-2, respectively. As USC’s closer Matt Price was mobbed by his teammates, ESPNU cameras panned to the UConn dugout, full of long faces. The Huskies had ample opportunities in both games, and based on the season goal, losing two games shy of the World Series was a disappointment for the players. UConn was outclassed by the reigning champions. Barnes, their ace didn’t come through in the first game and the Huskies offense seemed to end every inning with a double play in the clincher.
When interviewed by ESPN between innings, Penders seemed to deflect all credit away from him, saying he hadn’t built anything noting that UConn has always had a good baseball program.
He was half right. History supports the latter portion of his statement, but Penders, the Big East Coach of the Year, has built something in the state of Connecticut. UConn hosted a Regional last year, played off-campus games in New Britain and Norwich this season and has had three first-round picks in the last two years. It’s now a place for players who want to play at the next level. The seniors and juniors who move onto professional careers can hang their hats on the fact that they made baseball relevant at UConn again. It may always be in the shadow of bigger sports, but baseball is on its way to regularly sharing some of the Storrs spotlight.
The thing to do now is to improve J.O. Christian Field. It will never have the mystique and championships that college ballparks in Louisiana, Texas, Arizona and California do, but it does have the potential to be a great baseball facility. I’ve always considered the Huskies’ home in Storrs to have charm, but when Eastern Connecticut (Divison III) and Southern Connecticut (Division II), although both successful programs, have far better baseball fields that the state’s flagship university, it’s a problem. At least add some seatbacks to those cold, metal bleachers.
Improvements to J.O. Christian field would help recruiting, especially with TCU added to the Big East. UConn would actually be able to host a Regional on its campus. It would give Penders a place to market because someday, sooner rather than later, there will be College World Series appearances.
The Pride of New England will receive regular national recognition and UConn baseball will speak for itself.
And Penders won’t have to show recruits the banners in Gampel Pavilion anymore.