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Friday, May 13, 2011

Homegrown talent helps UConn baseball thrive

The common belief among state high school players used to be the south was the place to be for college baseball.
Jim Penders and the UConn Huskies are doing an excellent job to debunk that theory.
Last season, Pender's program earned its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1994 with a school-record 48 wins and its first appearance in the national rankings since 1979.
A trip to the NCAAs was a nice reward after UConn dropped its second straight Big East championship game, which came in a 3-0 loss to St. John's. The Huskies were eliminated by Oregon last year in the Norwich Regional.
Stocked with a roster full of homegrown talent and sitting atop the conference with one week to play, the Huskies (34-13-1, 18-3 Big East entering Friday's game against Louisville at Dodd Stadium in Norwicj) have not only stirred up interest in the collegiate game in New England, but made it cool to stay home to play ball again.
"All the talent in Connecticut, most of the top prospects try to go down south," said sophomore designated hitter LJ Mazzilli, from Greenwich, whose father is former major league player and manager Lee Mazzilli. "But we are doing it right here."
The Huskies have 17 players with in-state ties, including their two biggest stars -- junior outfielder George Springer (New Britain) and junior right-hander Matt Barnes (Bethel), who anchors the staff with his 98-mph fastball.
Springer leads the team in average (.376), homers (10) and RBIs (64), while Barnes is 9-3 with a 1.29 ERA and 82 strikeouts.
"If there's a kid who can play baseball, it's foolish for them not to come to UConn," said Penders, who is in his eighth season as the Huskies' skipper. "Right now we are one of the best teams in the region and have a lot of prospects."
One of the rising prospects is freshman southpaw Brian Ward, a Foran graduate who is 4-0 with a 2.60 ERA working at the back end of the rotation behind Barnes, Madison native Greg Nappo and senior co-captain Elliott Glynn, who is one of two California players on the roster.
Ward's emergence has helped offset the loss of righty Scott Oberg, who is out for the year after having Tommy John surgery.
"I've settled in nicely after a couple shaky starts," the 6-foot-3, 185-pound Ward said. "We all complement each other (on the staff). We work well with each other and root for each other."
Pitching is the one thing Penders focused on recruiting plenty of when he took over in 2003 after seven years serving as an assistant coach.
"It all starts with the guy on the bump," he said. "We were determined to build the team with pitching."
Among the other regional players on the Huskies are two Stratford juniors -- catcher John Sulzicki and infielder Tim Martin. Greenwich sophomore Michael Zaccardo is part of the bullpen.
UConn is the only team in the conference to already secure one of the eight postseason spots and entered the weekend ranked first in the New England region and 15th overall in one of the national polls (Collegiate Baseball Newspaper). Baseball America has the Huskies 18th while the NCBWA has them at 29th.
"Jim has done a tremendous job there," said Sacred Heart coach Nick Giaquinto, whose club beat UConn 5-4 earlier in the season. "They've taken the program to new heights."
The new heights include much bigger plans than just being a factor in the Big East. They Huskies want a league championship, which is something the program has not won since 1994 when Penders was a player there.
"One of the things that stands out about this team is we are all best friends on the one team," Mazzilli said. "We're one group with one goal in our lives. Everyone wants the same thing."
The Huskies appear to have the talent to accomplish that goal, but Penders prefers the Huskies focus on their daily tasks, not long-range goals.
"We haven't accomplished any of our goals, but we're making progress towards out goals," he said.

Read more: www.pakihungama.blogspot.com

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