UConn’s mission is simple: get to the NCAA Tournament. The Huskies have built a resume’ of five Top-50 RPI wins, including two at Wichita State. Photo by Grant Cohen
UConn came up one spot short of entering the 2017 NCAA Tournament after making an appearance the previous year.
This season, the Huskies have made it their mission to not leave their postseason invitation to hands of the selection committee.
With a top 10 RPI ranking and a 20-11-1 record, UConn has put themselves only one game back from the top of the American Athletic Conference standings and making their case to continue their season in June.
“Last year we had a really strong year, but something we took away is that every game counts,” sophomore outfielder and first baseman Chris Winkel said. “Whether we’re playing a top 20 team or local teams, every game counts, especially when it comes down to some guys in a boardroom deciding whether we deserve [an NCAA Tournament bid] or not.”
In order to give the Huskies an idea of how successful they can be as an individual and as a team, head coach Jim Penders brought in 2017 World Series MVP George Springer to meet with the team last December. Springer told the team that he was thinking about what he learned as a freshman at UConn during game one of the World Series, sophomore infielder Anthony Prato said.
Springer, who is the highest-drafted player in UConn history, emphasized that the Huskies’ program can help individuals become successful if they buy into the system. While Springer talked about how to succeed individually, he said that trust in teammates was one of the most important tools in having the success the Huskies desired.
“What his message was is that no one is bigger than the team,” Winkel said. “He said he’s still a UConn Huskie when he’s with us. He’s part of our team and he’s not above us and we’re not below him. [He said] your teammate is your teammate, no matter which guys start and which guys don’t. You’re a team, through and through.”
Construction of a new baseball facility set for completion in 2020 has caused the Huskies to play more than half of their games away from home. While Penders “hates” playing on the road, road games have fueled UConn’s success.
The Huskies played their first 22 games of the season on the road and hold five road wins over Top 50 RPI opponents, including Coastal Carolina, Georgia Tech, South Florida and Wichita State.
“[Being on the road] always adds something,” Prato said. “We’re on the road all the time. It’s kind of like our second home. We always have really good energy from that.”
What Penders is most impressed with, however, is his team’s ability to perform well in classes despite missing so much class during the season. UConn had 14 baseball players named to the American’s all-academic team in 2017, holding a GPA of 3.0 or higher.
“For our guys to study the way that they study and get it done in the classroom the way that they get it done, it’s a real credit to them and their mental toughness,” Penders said. “We’re not in class a lot in the spring and it’s amazing to me. When I first got into this, we were in class. Now we’re taking off on Thursday mornings to get to these far flown places every single weekend.”
UConn’s team saying this year is “65”, due to the fact that they were the first team to not get selected for postseason out of 64 teams. The Huskies have used that number as motivation to put in the extra work before and after practice, emphasizing that they are not going to let one win or one play take away from another tournament bid.
Those extra reps have paid off for the Huskies so far, with UConn improving their batting average from .257 to .277 as a team.
“It’s one more thing one more time,” Penders said. “That’s what we said at the beginning of the year. If you have a set of 10 on the bench press, make it 11. If you’re taking five swings in the cage, that really means six. So take one more thing, one more time and do it better than the other guy.
“Last year was a really good group. I thought we maximized our abilities. But maybe there was one more rep that we could’ve done that would’ve gotten us that one more (win) or whatever we needed to get [to the NCAA Tournament]. We’re not going to take that chance again and hopefully not have to leave it up to a committee of people in a room and settle it on the field with a championship, make it easy on everybody.”