Eight days ago, going into the first game of the Big East Championship, Jim Penders and his UConn squad had only one option. Win the conference tournament or go home. Coming in as the number eight seed and having virtually no shot at an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament, it would take nothing less than capturing the Big East Conference tournament crown to move UConn into the field of 64. Five days and four consecutive wins later, it was UConn celebrating the near impossible dream after junior lefty Anthony Marzi rebounded from a dismal start last Thursday, and went the distance in the complete game win Sunday over Notre Dame. The win ignited a wild celebration and propelled UConn (34-26, 9-15 Big East) into the NCAA Division l Baseball Championship.
Penders summed up the enormity of the win, “Personally, it was really special to me. I think the kids understood how important it was. Thirteen years old and my dad driving me to Muzzy Field (Bristol, CT). I didn’t really know what the Big East was other than watching (Syracuse basketball guard) Pearl Washington, and (UConn basketball guard) Earl Kelly, and going ‘Holy Cow, the Big East plays baseball too’.”
Penders added, “(It was) For (Former St John’s coach) Joe Russo. We won one for the old Big East. I call it the ‘Original 8’, because there were eight in baseball in 1985. Was thinking of (Former Villanova coach) George Bennett, (Current St John’s coach) Ed Blankmeyer, (Former Seton Hall coach) Mike Sheppard, (Former UConn coach) Andy Baylock.” And others.
The win over the Irish was especially sweet for the Huskies in their last go round as a member of the Big East Conference.
Said Penders, “We couldn’t let Notre Dame lift the trophy in the last Big East Championship.”
It was a less than veiled swipe at the school that some in the conference finger as public enemy number one in the demise of the Big East.
UConn will be joining the newly formed American Athletic Conference this fall. For Penders, the last 10 days has not only been a time for reflection but also a chance to look ahead.
As UConn’s tenure in the Big East comes to a close Penders said, “The party line is, you’ve got to be enthusiastic about moving on, but, it’s hard for me, having watched Big East Tournaments in 1985 and 1986 at Muzzy Field as a school boy. And then having played at Muzzy Field and having coached on it. I’m gonna miss it.”
Adding, “I think the new conference for us is going to better for baseball. As crazy as that may seem. I think it’s a stronger league top to bottom in baseball. And that’s a good thing for us.”
UConn fired on all cylinders for the tournament, hitting .311 during the four game run, over 40 points higher than their season average, while turning in gutty pitching performances and fielding a stingy defense. In the four games the Huskies only committed three errors, two of those in the Saturday win over Rutgers, leading to only two unearned runs in the four games.
Despite giving up seven runs, six earned, in the improbable 8-7 comeback win over USF in game two of the tournament, the pitching was sensational. In the four game tourney sweep, the starters posted a terrific 1.92 ERA, while the staff overall posted an outstanding 2.08 ERA. Marzi, who started the USF game and lasted only 3.1 innings, took the ball Sunday against the Irish after game one starter Carson Cross was a late scratch with a stiff back, and pitched a complete game gem for the conference trophy .
Penders sensed something special for the week after the comeback win over USF saying, “You get behind 7-0, I’d be lying if I said ‘Geez, we’re gonna go romp’, but when Vinny Siena slid into third base after the (USF) centerfielder misplayed what should have been a single, I knew we were gonna win the whole thing.”
After returning to Storrs Sunday night, the team gathered at the Burton Family Football Complex for the noon time Selection Monday Show. The team waited about 15 minutes before erupting in cheers as their name appeared on the big screen setting up a Friday afternoon matchup in Blacksburg, VA with the Hokies of Virginia Tech (38-20, 15-14 ACC).
Penders will coach against Hokies 19 year coach Pete Hughes with some mixed emotions, “(Hughes) is a guy we’ve never scheduled because we’re friends. And we get him in the first round. That’s how it worked out. That’s how it had to happen. Long time Boston College coach. A really good guy.”
#4 seed UConn and #1 seed Virginia Tech will be joined in the Blacksburg Regional by #2 seed Oklahoma and #3 seed Coastal Carolina in a double elimination format. The winner will move onto the Super Regional against the Baton Rouge (LA) Regional winner.
VA Tech, ranked as high as 21st in the Baseball America poll, lost to third ranked North Carolina in the ACC Tournament Championship game.
On paper the match-up is intriguing. The Hokies bats versus the Huskies arms. Virginia Tech comes in hitting .290 as a club having hit 52 homers to UConn’s 20, a plus 39 in the doubles column over Penders squad and outslugging the Huskies by almost 90 points.
“ACC program that’s been built the right way. Pete (Hughes) has got some sluggers. In reality if we play like we did Sunday afternoon (Win over Notre Dame), I like our chances with anybody. With that said we’re gonna have a heck of a test”, said Penders.
On the hill UConn, behind Friday starter Carson Cross’ 2.50 ERA, posts a team ERA of 3.46, almost a full run better than the Hokies staff ERA of 4.31.
Defensively, the fielding percentage’s are virtually even.
UConn-VA Tech will be Friday’s second game, with the first pitch scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Oklahoma and Coastal open the Regional with a 1:00 p.m. scheduled first pitch. The teams will be playing on Virginia Tech’s on campus ballpark, English Field.