Feb. 7, 2011

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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.


Connecticut 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 season, Connecticut’s 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 will.


“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 March 15.


“We’re 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 Communications)