During its return to the Big East Conference, the Huskies baseball team won both the regular season and conference tournament for the first time in the same season and tonight returns to the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive time and seventh overall appearance since 2010.
UConn is the No. 2 seed in the South Bend Regional and will face No. seed Michigan at 7 p.m. on ESPN3. Host Notre Dame is the No. 1 seed in the bracket and plays No 4 seed Central Michigan in the double-elimination tournament. Winners advance to play in a Super Regional best two-of-three series.
Reaching the NCAA Tournament seemed a distant possibility last fall after the COVID 19 pandemic abruptly ended 2020 season and shut down activities nationally in the summer and fall, including access to new facilities at Elliot Ballpark. The nine freshmen all tested positive for coronavirus soon after arriving on campus in September.
Coach Jim Penders had scheduled top-ranked teams early in the season (No. 5 Virginia and No. 9 Texas Tech) to challenge his team. As the 2021 season began in February, the Huskies struggled early losing 12 of 14 games, but after pushing Texas Tech into extra innings in the final game of that series and losing on a walk-off run in the bottom of the tenth inning, the Huskies started on an 11-2 run.
“We got walked off in Lubbock and that was impressive to me in a way that they could feel a small victory there; that we hung with that elite Omaha caliber team,” Penders says. “They took something positive from that.”
The Huskies finished the regular season and conference tournament with a 33-17 record, including a 16-1 record at home. Asked by reporters about how this year’s squad stands against his previous NCAA teams, Penders noted the unique challenges of 2021.
“[This team has] been battle-tested in a way that none of our other teams have ever had to be and I think that’s true of a lot of teams in the country this year,” he says. “I’ve never been prouder of a team than I am of this one for what they’ve had to get through. I’m just excited about trying to stick around for another month with them because we’re having a lot of fun together.”
Michigan was the runner-up in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, losing to Vanderbilt in the final game of the best-of-three series. The Wolverines return to the tournament as an at-large selection, finishing third in the Big Ten Conference with a 27-17 record, all in conference play. Michigan is coached by Erik Bakich, the 2019 National Coach of the Year.
“It’s going to be a tough game,” Penders says. “There’s not a more organized or disciplined coach in the country. They know their way to the national championship game, so we’re up against a heck of an opponent. The Big 10 plays good baseball. They’re going be close to home. They’re going to be comfortable. “
UConn is led by sophomore outfielder Kyler Fedko, who earned honors as Big East Player of the Year and Most Outstanding Player in the Big East Tournament. He is the leading hitter for the Huskies with a batting average of .411, 12 HR and 53 RBI. The Winkel brothers, senior outfielder Chris and sophomore catcher Pat, each hit 11 home runs and combined for 74 RBI. Freshman first baseman Reggie Crawford hit 11 home runs and had 56 RBI with a .288 batting average.
UConn’s pitchers are led by left-handed reliever Caleb Wurster (4-1, 1.64 ERA, 50 SO), right-hander Randy Polonia (0-0, 2.13 ERA,50 SO), right-hander Austin Peterson (7-1, 2.65 ERA, 75 SO) and right-hander Ben Casparius (8-4, 3.07, 123 SO).
This season Michigan led the Big Ten Conference in runs scored (307), runs batted in (280) and total bases (675). The team’s leading pitchers are a pair of sophomores, left-handed redshirt Steven Hajjar (13-13, 2.85 ERA, 101 SO) and right-handed Cameron Weston (7-3 2.30 ERA 67 SO). Leading hitters are sophomore infielder Tito Flores (.327, 6 HR, 36 RBI), fifth year shortstop Benjamin Sems (.321, 6 HR, 30 RBI) and sophomore catcher Jimmy Obertop (.272 10 HR 33 RBI).
The Huskies and Wolverines played four times early in the 2020 season, with UConn taking three out of four games at Port St. Lucie, Florida.
[Editor’s Note: The Huskies defeated Michigan in the opening round of the South Bend Regional of the NCAA Baseball Tournament on Friday before losing to Notre Dame on Saturday and Central Michigan on Sunday in the double-elimination format to end the 2021 season with a 34-19 record and the Big East Conference Championship.]