Baseball Team Heads for Post-Season Play

<p>Baseball player Mike Olt, number 22, will graduate in 2011. Photo by Stephen Slade</p>
Baseball player Mike Olt, one of the team's leading hitters. Photo by Stephen Slade

Baseball is a game of history and statistics. It is also a game of superstition. So as the 2010 UConn baseball season began to set records, superstition came into play.

As they ran off 22 consecutive wins, the team followed a pattern usually reserved for a no-hitter – no one spoke about it. Head coach Jim Penders would fill his gas tank only to the amount that matched the team’s most recent record – $37.07 for the team’s 37-7 record, for example – precisely to the penny, being careful not to go over. For more than a month, none of the 35 players and four coaches visited a barbershop.

“In baseball, we’re goofy like that,” says Penders, a standout scholar-athlete during his playing days at UConn who took the helm six years ago. “There’s a million ways to lose a baseball game, and for 22 games in about a month we didn’t find any of those ways. It was really special.”

Heading into Big East tournament play May 26-30 in Clearwater, Fla., seeded no. 2, the Huskies know their entire season has been special. For the first time since a run to the College World Series in 1979, the baseball team has received national ranking. The Huskies have two of the top pitchers in the Big East, Elliot Glynn and Matt Barnes, a starting lineup with batting averages near or over .300, and a team slugging percentage more than 100 points over their opponents.

The result is a regular season record of 43-12, establishing a new season wins mark, and a determined focus on moving deep into post-season play in the NCAA Championship tournament, which will culminate in late June at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. The Huskies will play Cincinnati on May 26 at 1 p.m. The May 30 Big East championship will be televised live on ESPNU, and every UConn game can be heard on WTIC AM 1080 and WHUS 91.7 FM.

“We still have a lot to prove,” says Glynn, a junior from Long Beach, Calif., one of the top pitchers in college baseball this year and the No. 1 hurler in the Big East. “There is a whole other season on the horizon and a whole lot to earn.”

Adds Mike Nemeth, a junior first baseman from Washington, N.J., who is the Huskies’ leading hitter: “The way we’re playing is pretty special. We want to make a run in the tournament.”

After a 12-7 start, the Huskies began their 22-game win streak by taking the final game of a three-game series in Louisville, Ky., in late March, when the Cardinals were ranked No. 7 nationally. For nearly a month, both in and out of conference games, the team piled up wins so that by mid-April the Huskies appeared at No. 25 in the national rankings, eventually moving into the top 20.

<p>Mens baseball player Mike Olt. </p>
Men's baseball player Mike Olt, number 22. Photo by Stephen Slade

Penders learned about the ranking soon after his team swept Villanova in a Big East series at J.O. Christian Field in Storrs. He met with the team and crafted his remarks to his student-athletes in a familiar tone: “It’s something to be proud of, but we haven’t accomplished anything yet. The only ranking that matters is what we think of ourselves.”

Yet what others think about the baseball team is spreading quickly. Storrs-area baseball fans have provided vocal support during home games. Students have formed the K-9 Unit in the right-field bleachers at J.O. Christian Field, rivaling the soccer team’s Goal Patrol and football team’s Dog Pound.

“It’s cool to have them giving us a little edge, ripping on the other team,” says Nemeth. “It certainly happens to us when we go on the road.”

Penders says interest in playing baseball at UConn continues to rise, as he and his coaches are on the recruiting trail. The University of Connecticut is recognized by players in California, Texas, Georgia, and other prime areas for attracting talented baseball players. It’s a process Penders says is similar to that established by Hall of Fame basketball coaches Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma and football coach Randy Edsall, who built programs that led to attracting the highly recruited student-athlete who could move the team to the next level of achievement, especially home-grown talent from Connecticut.

“When Coach Calhoun first got here, he didn’t get Chris Smith in his first year. Randy didn’t get Dan Orlovsky until his third year,” Penders says. “In the past two or three years we’ve been able to get George Springer (New Britain), Mike Olt (Branford), and L.J. Mazzilli (Greenwich), a freshman who was rated as the top player in Connecticut last year.”

UConn players are being recognized individually within college baseball as well. In last year’s Cape Cod League, the top college summer league, three Huskies were named to the all-star team – outfielder Springer, pitcher Glynn, and infielder Pierre LePage, a Connecticut player from Wolcott.

“That’s significant because when our players go to those national-level leagues and excel, they bring confidence back with them,” says Penders. “We think Connecticut is a place of championships. We look at basketball, soccer, and football and say: They can do it. Why can’t we?”

More information is available on the Athletics website.