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Huskies determined to
back up preseason hype
By Allen Kha
College baseball in the North, particularly in
New England, has the stigma of lagging behind the South and West
Coast. Yet, Connecticut made a case for the cold-weather schools
a year ago when the NCAA tournament committee awarded the
Huskies a tournament regional in despite being a No. 2 seed.
The Huskies couldn’t escape Oregon in its home
regional, reinforcing some fans’ view that they didn’t deserve
to host a regional.
The Huskies, ranked No. 16 in this season’s first
CollegeBaseballInsider.com Composite Poll and coming off last
year’s historic 48-win season, are looking to debunk any myths
about their quality, the Big East and Northern baseball.
returns most of its key players outside of position players Mike
Olt and Pierre LePage. Leading the way are bona fide Major
League Baseball prospects Matt Barnes (right) and George
Springer, juniors who are projected to be drafted early in the
first round in this year’s draft. Also back are: senior first
baseman Mike Nemeth, who led the Huskies with a .386 average and
84 RBI; starting arms Elliott Glynn (7-3, 2.99), Greg Nappo
(8-5, 4.44) and Robert Van Woert (6-1, 4.84); and top reliever
Scott Oberg (5-2, 1.94) and Kevin Vance (1-0, 2.41, 8 saves).
Needless to say, excitement about Connecticut
baseball is growing in Storrs.
“It’s time we show that the Big East isn’t just a
basketball conference,” said Springer, a junior centerfielder
who hit .337 with 18 homers and 62 RBI. “We play some good
baseball here, too. You look at what Louisville did last season…
and add that St. John’s and Pitt are very good, too.
“We’re just here to prove that we can play, and
to earn success. We know that we are a very talented team, but
we have to show that we can reach the expectations and faith
that people are placing on our team.”
Despite the program’s confidence in its ability
to win the Big East and reach bigger and better things this
players are humble and want to earn their way to success.
“George and I, and our team, can’t fall into the
hype and lose sight of what we have to do now,” said Barnes, who
was 8-3 with a 3.92 ERA. “We’re taking it one step and one goal
at a time, and our goal is to win our conference and get into
the tournament. We know that the media and people expect a lot
out of our team, but we can’t accomplish anything if we get
ahead of ourselves.”
Connecticut coach Jim Penders noted that while
Springer, a legitimate five-tool outfielder, and Barnes, a
lively and seasoned arm topping at 97 mph, will lead the
Huskies, other players to watch out for are junior shortstop
Nick Ahmed and Nappo, a senior.
“All of the hype surrounds Matt and George, for
good reason,” Penders said. “But we have a very good pitching
staff and a solid lineup from top-to-bottom. Players like Nick
Ahmed will have to step up for us, and I’m confident that they
“Our program’s really grown over the past few
years, and it was a wonderful experience hosting a [tournament]
regional last season. Our program is really on the rise, and our
facilities have improved. Now, we have to show our desire to
reach that point again and prove our worth. That starts with
doing what we can to win the Big East.”
Connecticut nearly won the Big East a year ago
but finished 20-6 in the conference, one win behind Louisville.
The miracle season included a 22-game winning streak and marked
the Huskies’ first NCAA appearance since 1994.
Penders said his team will
have its stripes tested early, with Connecticut playing
Minnesota, Indiana, Texas A&M, San Diego, California and San
Diego State on the road before finally playing a home game on
playing so many conference champions and a lot of good teams,”
said Penders, a UConn graduate who worked as a fundraiser for
Senator Tom Harkin from 1994-96. “We’ll see if we meet the type
once we finish this stretch. Hopefully we’ll be in a position to
compete for bigger things.”
Springer (left) added: “We have a tough stretch
to begin the season, and if I’m paying attention to what scouts
think and the hype around me and Matt, then I’m not giving 100
percent to the team. I’m just ready to play some baseball and
help our team win.”
(photos courtesy of UConn Athletics