Tough Team-Effort Pushes UConn To College Park Regional Title
COLLEGE PARK, Md. – All weekend long at Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium, Connecticut had to fight tooth and nail. In that way, the College Park Regional was no different than any other weekend for the Huskies.
Playing college baseball for UConn requires toughness to go through the winters, road trips and skepticism that greets teams outside the sport’s normal power structure. Whether players come to Storrs, Conn., with that toughness already or if they learn it while playing for coach Jim Penders, the Huskies are plenty battle tested by June.
The Huskies put that fight into action this weekend in the NCAA Tournament, culminating in Monday’s 11-8 victory against Maryland in the College Park Regional final. UConn overcame a first-inning deficit, a hostile crowd and a furious comeback from the Terrapins to hold on for a win that will take its place among the biggest in program history.
Eleven years to the day after UConn last won a regional, the Huskies are regional champions again. They advance to super regionals, where they will take on Stanford, the Pac-12 champion and No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.
For catcher Matt Donlan, who grew up in Guilford, Conn., and began his college career at Division II Stonehill (Mass.), before transferring to UConn in 2020 after his sophomore year, this was what it was all about.
“I’ve never played in a college baseball playoffs my whole entire career,” he said. “Growing up in Connecticut, you dream of playing for UConn. Just to have that opportunity now, to bring all the guys to supers is great.”
Monday’s game was 11 years to the day since UConn won the 2011 Clemson Regional, the only other time the Huskies have advanced to super regionals. The 2011 team was one of the best in program history. It won 45 games, handily finished in first place in the Big East and had four big leaguers on the roster, led by future all-star George Springer.
The poetic symmetry between UConn’s super regional teams would be apparent even if it weren’t for the matching date on the calendar. The 2022 team also has piled up a massive win total (49), won the Big East handily and has several pro prospects on the roster.
But coach Jim Penders didn’t think back to June 6, 2011. His mind went back one year further, to June 6, 2010. On that day, UConn lost to Oregon in an elimination game of the Norwich Regional. It was the first time the Huskies hosted a regional since 1977, when the NCAA Tournament took an almost entirely different shape. Getting to host, even as a No. 2 seed, like the Huskies were, was a big step for the program and they fell short that year.
Penders said he is still motivated by the loss in 2010, when the pressure of hosting a regional overwhelmed the Huskies.
“I never forget those guys in 2010 and probably not being ready as a skipper to help them through that,” he said. “I think about 2010 almost more than 2011 and it being 12 years to the day.”
Penders was able to help guide the Huskies through a difficult environment Monday. After Maryland defeated UConn, 7-6, in 11 innings Sunday to force a winner-take-all finals rematch, the Huskies knew they were in an all-hands-on-deck situation. And Monday’s victory, like the whole weekend, was a team effort for the Huskies.
Freshman righthander Ian Cooke started the game for the Huskies and he held the Terrapins to one run through four innings before getting into trouble in the fifth. When that happened, on came ace Austin Peterson, working out of the bullpen on his throw day after pitching Friday. He struck out five batters in 2.1 innings and earned his 11th win of the season. Closer Justin Willis, working for the third time in four days, threw two scoreless innings to finish the game and earn his 15th save of the season, the second most in the nation.
Offensively, every UConn starter had either a hit or a run and most had at least one of each. The Huskies collected nine hits and drew seven walks against a beleaguered Terrapins pitching staff. They went to work from the start, putting six runs on the board in the first inning with Donlan providing the big blow with a two-out grand slam that made the score 6-1.
Donlan only came up in that spot in the first inning because Penders had dropped him back in the lineup Monday, a fortuitous move that meant one of the Huskies’ biggest power threats came up in a spot where he could do damage.
“Thank God we had him in the eight-hole today,” Penders said. “He’s coming around third (on the grand slam) and I’m yelling, ‘That’s my eight-hole hitter.’
“He’s a heck of a defensive catcher and a really good offensive player. He rises to the occasion in the biggest spots.”
The Huskies led 9-1 after four innings and looked like they might be able to cruise through the regional final. But the Terrapins steadied the ship and then fought back, scoring four runs in the fifth and then pushing closer with three runs in the seventh and the eighth innings.
Maryland brought the tying run to the plate in the eighth, forcing Willis to come into the game for a six-out save, inheriting a runner on second. It nearly got harrier for the Huskies as, after Willis got the first out and the runner advanced to third, Big Ten player of the year Chris Alleyne hit a groundball up the first base line. Willis fielded the ball and threw to first, hitting Alleyne in the back and allowing the runner to score. The play was ruled runner interference, however, wiping the run off the board and giving UConn a crucial out.
In the stadium, when the call was first made, it appeared that Alleyne had been called out for a collision with first baseman Ben Huber, who was standing on first base trying to catch Willis’ throw. But after a replay review, Alleyne was ruled to have been running in fair territory when the ball hit him.
After the game, Maryland coach Rob Vaughn said that while he wished the ruling had gone the other way, the right call had been made.
“It’s a hard rule. I think you can call that almost any play because I’ve never seen a runner run in the running lane that’s designated for them,” Vaughn said. “But the rule’s a rule for a reason and he enforced it the way he saw it.
“Unfortunately for us in that situation it was a pretty good gut punch right there. I just told our guys, ‘Keep coming. No matter what happens in this review, keep coming.’ And they did.”
But the momentum had swung back to UConn. Willis got another groundball to get out of the inning, the Huskies added an insurance run in the bottom of the inning and then Maryland went down in order in the ninth. When the final out of the game nestled into center fielder T.C. Simmons’ glove, it touched off jubilant celebrations from the Huskies.
Ranking the Top 100 Transfers in College Baseball for 2023
Breaking down the top 100 college baseball transfers going into the 2023 season.
UConn has consistently been the standard bearer for the Northeast in college baseball over the last 15 years. Since 2010, it has been to regionals eight times. Depending on how broadly you define the Northeast, it is the only school in the region to have hosted a regional in that time. It recently opened a beautiful new stadium that one day soon will likely host an on-campus regional. And now, it’s going back to super regionals.
Penders said none of that is an accident. UConn has long been committed to college baseball in a way that most other schools in the region aren’t. That administrative commitment has allowed UConn’s coaching staff to stay together longer than any other in the country—11 years.
“That consistency isn’t by accident,” Penders said. “That’s the culture that’s been in the program since long before I got here.”
Penders is just the fourth man to coach the Huskies over the last 86 years. The other three all have their uniforms retired and Penders will one day as well. He’s taken the program to new heights and has a chance for even more next week at Stanford.
The Huskies are now just two wins away from their first trip to the College World Series since 1979. Playing at Stanford won’t be easy, but the Cardinal were just pushed to the brink by Texas State. The Huskies are battle-tested and only Tennessee has won more games than them this season.
Just like it did this weekend, UConn will go to Stanford believing it can win. And, once again, the Huskies will be ready to fight to the end.