Huskies baseball coach Jim Penders not only comes from a baseball family, he comes from a UConn baseball tradition. His father, Jim, a longtime high school coach, and his uncle, Tom, led the Huskies to the 1965 College World Series.
So after watching his team eliminated 4-3 by the University of Oregon in the first round of the 2010 NCAA baseball tournament and completing the best Huskies season in 114 years by winning 48 games, it seemed natural for Penders to view his team’s accomplishments with a historic perspective. He compared the work ethic of his 21st century players to the 19th-century founders of the University of Connecticut.
“We’re just trying to outwork the opposition,” Penders said on Sunday after the Huskies, hosts of the regional tournament, lost their second game in three days to Oregon at Dodd Stadium in Norwich. “We have won more games than any other team that has worn the uniform since 1896. Nobody can take that away. I talked to the guys about Charles and Augustus Storrs. They just wanted to be better farmers. The guys who first attended the University, that’s where it started. That’s what it’s got to be about. We’ve got to outwork everybody.”
The Huskies’ greatest baseball season included its first NCAA tournament win since 1979, after the team avenged a regular season loss to Central Connecticut State University on June 5 with a 25-5 victory over the Blue Devils. The Blue Devils were the team that had ended the Huskies’ 22-game winning streak in April.
In the double-elimination format of the NCAA regional tournament, UConn dropped to the losers’ bracket with Central Connecticut, which lost 11-3 to top-seeded Florida State on June 4. The Seminoles went on to beat Oregon 5-3 June 6 and moved on to the next round of the tournament.
On June 6, the Huskies were again frustrated by Oregon’s chipping, small ball style of play, dropping hits between the infield and outfield and aggressively advancing its runners with bunts and steals.
A thunderstorm crossing the state moved into Norwich as UConn was batting in the top of the ninth inning. Billy Ferriter led off the inning with a single, but with lightning sighted, the game was stopped for about an hour.
The Huskies, who had rallied for late game victories throughout the season, drew a roar from their fans when John Andreoli slapped an infield hit and moved to second on an Oregon throwing error. With both UConn runners in scoring position, Pierre LePage sent a towering drive to left field that sent Oregon freshman Andrew Mendenhall racing to the wall, where he leaped up and caught the ball against the billboard fence. Ferriter scored from third base for the Huskies to narrow the deficit to one run, before Ducks relief pitcher Madison Boer retired the final two UConn batters and ended UConn’s season.
Penders and his players said that while they were disappointed in ending their season, they viewed their accomplishments in 2010 by looking toward the future of the baseball program.
“We made progress. We beat a good team yesterday and won an NCAA Tournament game for the first time in 31 years,” Penders said. “They should walk out with their heads held high and know that they have gotten into what I think of as some uncharted territory. We talk about winning championships and that is what it’s about. Graduating our guys, reaching our academic potential, winning championships, and becoming better leaders and giving back – that is what the program is built on. We took steps this year.”
First baseman Mike Nemeth was elated by the season’s accomplishments. “I think everything we did was absolutely incredible,” he said. “It was all positives, getting the name of the program out there, making a regional, and hosting a regional is a really huge deal, knowing that we do have a good baseball team, a growing program, and stable coaches that love doing their jobs.”
In all the other 15 NCAA regional tournament sites, the top seed was the host in 2010. The exception was the Norwich regional, where No. 2 UConn was awarded site host honors. It was the first time a baseball regional was hosted in New England in two decades and Friday night’s enthusiastic crowd of 5,684 fans did not go unnoticed.
“Everyone at Central Connecticut is very appreciative of the people at the University of Connecticut for making this opportunity happen,” said George Hickey, head coach for Central Connecticut. “It gave our kids a chance to play in a great environment in front of their family and friends. The fact that UConn stepped forward for college baseball in this part of the country is something that we across the state recognize.”
UConn athletics director Jeff Hathaway said getting the regional college baseball tournament play back to the northeast for the first time in 20 years was “an awfully good statement” about UConn baseball. “It was just fantastic to see this ballpark with nearly 6,000 people on a great night,” he said. “It was a perfect scenario.”
Second baseman LePage said the players “were really excited to come out here and play in front of all of these people. We don’t exactly get this kind of crowd in Storrs, so it was a nice change and we came out ready to play with all the energy in the world. It was fun seeing everyone from Connecticut out here supporting us, behind us and giving us everything they had.”
Penders said that as he walked off the field, his thoughts were already focusing on next year. With the expectation that juniors LePage, Nemeth, and Mike Olt will be selected in the upcoming Major League Baseball draft, the Huskies will need to replace some of their best players.
“We are behind in recruiting,” Penders said, noting the price of this season’s successful post-season. “Boston College has been on the road for a week and a half. I’m covering games tomorrow. We have to go out and get on the road quickly. I have been thinking about that since the last out. We have been hearing a lot from kids from regions that we don’t normally hear from. I want to get the best kids in Connecticut to stay in Connecticut and not only win Big East championships and regional championships, but national championships. … That is the goal now.”