Update, June 7, 2011: The Huskies will advance to the Super Regional of the 2011 NCAA Baseball Tournament, after exploding for a 14-1 win over Clemson Monday night. UConn will face defending NCAA champions South Carolina in Columbia, S.C., in a best of three-game series beginning Saturday, June 11, with the winner advancing as one of eight teams to the 2011 College World Series in Omaha, Neb., June 18-28/29.
Update, June 6, 2011: After dropping to the loser’s bracket in the NCAA Tournament following a loss to Coastal Carolina, the Huskies baseball team won three games, including two on Sunday, to force a showdown Monday night at 7 p.m. against Clemson. The winner of the game will advance to the NCAA Super Regional round next weekend. The game begins at 7 p.m. and will be broadcast on WHUS (91.7 FM).
Head coach Jim Penders had thought all morning on Monday, the day of the NCAA baseball tournament selection, about the three seniors on the UConn baseball team who have won more games wearing a Huskies uniform than any others.
”I wanted their season and careers to end on a field, not in an auditorium,” Penders said of catcher Doug Elliot and pitchers Bob Van Woert and Greg Nappo, who will end their collegiate baseball careers playing in the 2011 NCAA Baseball Tournament. The tournament begins tomorrow at 3 p.m. against Coastal Carolina of the Big South Conference in Clemson, S.C.
The Huskies (41-17-1), had to wait until near the end of the NCAA selection show broadcast on ESPN to learn they were headed to their second straight NCAA regional tournament. The team is the No. 2-seed in the Clemson region. Other teams in the region include No. 1-seed Clemson (41-18) of the Atlantic Coast Conference and No. 4 Sacred Heart University (34-21) of the Northeast Conference, coached by UConn alum Nick Giaquinto. Coastal Carolina (41-18) is the region’s No. 3 seed. Sacred Heart beat the Huskies 5-4 in March at Dodd Stadium in Norwich.
The Huskies, the Big East regular season champions, had to hold their collective breath after losing twice to Seton Hall University in the Big East Tournament in Clearwater, Fla., over the Memorial Day weekend. Seton Hall won the conference tournament by defeating St. John’s. Both the Pirates and the Red Storm were announced as NCAA tournament selections before the Huskies.
“It was really kind of tense there for a while trying to find out,” said senior first baseman Mike Nemeth. “I thought we would get it, but you never know with the way we played down south. But I’m really glad we got that bid. It gives you that extra bit of want. You always have that extra giddy up going to the park knowing it might be the last time.”
The NCAA baseball tournament, similar to its basketball tournament, selects 64 teams, including 30 post-season conference tournament champions and 34 at-large teams, to see which will be the top eight teams that make it to the College World Series in Omaha., Neb., June 18-28/29. First round tournament play begins with double elimination regional pairings June 3-6, followed by super-regional competition in two-of-three series June 10-12 or June 11-13, before the College World Series.
Following a brief celebration, Penders told the team: “We deserved to be in and a two seed. You’ve had a really good season. All of that now is in the past. It’s a brand new season. There were 300 [Division I] teams who had the chance to go to Omaha on Feb. 1; now there are just 64. If you play like you’re capable of playing, there’s absolutely no reason we can’t get to Omaha. We’ve got to win a regional championship first.”
Coastal Carolina is led in hitting by junior second baseman Tommy La Stella (.391 batting average, 11 home runs, 63 runs batted in), senior center fielder Scott Woodward (.363, 4, 36), and junior right fielder Daniel Bowman (.275, 12, 56). Their top pitchers are senior left-hander Matt Rein, with a 9-2 record and an earned run average of 1.78, and junior right-hander Anthony Meo, who is 9-3 on the year with a 2.21 E.R.A.
Penders said Coastal Carolina is known as a team that bunts and likes to steal bases.
“They could give us fits,” he said. “That’s what they preach. They’re going to be very aggressive on the bases. It’s our job to hopefully keep them off the bases.”
Penders said at this point in the season, he does not expect to make any big adjustments in the lineup, although junior shortstop Nick Ahmed would likely be the designated hitter now that he has recovered from a collapsed lung that caused him to miss the end of the regular season. Junior pitcher Matt Barnes and Nappo will get the ball first on the mound, but who will open the series will be determined once the team arrives in South Carolina, he added.
Their spirits lifted following their disappointing finish in the Big East Tournament, the Huskies are looking forward to keeping their season going.
“The last stretch of the season for us was where we made a name for ourselves and ultimately helped ourselves out. We’re a very experienced team now,” said junior outfielder George Springer, the Huskies’ leading hitter, with a .361 E.R.A., 12 home runs, and 74 runs batted in.
“Our program is now at a national stage, and it’s expected for us to get to this tournament and do some damage,” said junior outfielder John Andreoli. “We’ve got to do what we’re expected to do, and that’s to win. You’ve got to get that first game and not look ahead. I guess we saw that in the Big East Tournament. We’ve got to play 54 outs strong.”