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In all walks of life, it is not about what you do when everyone is watching. It is about what you work toward when no one is watching.
That was the motto the UConn baseball team followed this spring. The Huskies made sure to work their hardest when spectator eyes were not glued to them, and it carried them to the NCAA Tournament.
The driving force behind motivating the team to put in a little bit extra in the classroom, weight room and on the diamond was, naturally, head coach Jim Penders. Throughout his 16-year career, Penders has the most wins (564) in program history.
UConn’s ace pitcher Mason Feole, who was drafted in the 11th round of this week’s MLB Amateur Draft by the San Diego Padres, said Penders’ analogy at the beginning of the season stuck in the team’s collective mind.
Penders told his team that the Golden Gate Bridge began construction underwater and each worker had to execute the guidelines perfectly. Finally, once the bridge was complete and taken out of the water, everyone wanted to see it.
That certainly explains the 2019 UConn baseball team.
“Every single guy that got on the field worked ridiculously to make sure that they were the best possible player they could be for us,” Feole said. “It just shows a lot about our team this year. It was everyone. It wasn’t one or two guys, it was everyone.”
Closer Jacob Wallace showed glimpses of stardom during his sophomore season the year prior, but the work that he put in made him one of the best closers in all of college baseball. Wallace finished the season with a 0.64 ERA, 68 strikeouts and only surrendered 10 walks over 42 innings pitched.
“Jake Wallace is the perfect example of someone who was continuously told ‘no’ and told ‘your not good enough,’” Feole said. “You watch his performance in the regional and it is the most amazing pitching performance that I’ve ever seen with my own eyes.”
Wallace was lights out on the mound during the regional, striking out all seven batters he faced against No. 9 Oklahoma State to preserve the 5-2 win. But before the Huskies reached that point, they had to deal with some adversity.
Prior to the regionals, UConn rolled through the The American Conference during the first three rounds to get to the conference tournament championship. But then the championship game happened and they were throttled by Cincinnati, losing 22-5. For most teams, that would destroy its confidence, but that was not the case for UConn.
“You are going to fall down in life and in our game,” Penders said. “That was the worst loss in my tenure from a run standpoint and we knew the game was out of reach. So we weren't going to use our top relievers to hold it to a respectable margin. We needed to rest those guys because we knew we were going to get up another day and play for something else.”
Five days after the devastating loss, the Huskies played Nebraska in the first round of the Oklahoma City Regional and lost 8-5. With their backs against the wall, the Huskies had to respond otherwise it would be the end of their season. They would go on to win the next three games, including the one against No. 9 Oklahoma State.
“We’ve had more talented teams, but I’ve never had a tougher team,” Penders said. “I’ve had maybe a team as tough, but never tougher than the 2019 Huskies. I’ll always remember the tremendous fight that they had down the stretch of the season.”
Feole, who pitched to Wallingford native Paul Gozzo, said the team became tougher because of the ultimate goal that they had in mind.
“We were a tough team when we rolled into campus day one,” Feole said. “We were a tough team at the end of last year when we lost to Washington. Our goal this year was obviously to win the whole thing, but the resilience that we showed, guys playing hurt, going through adversity and finding a way to make it happen. That's just UConn Husky baseball.”
In order to advance to the Super Regional, UConn had to defeat Oklahoma State once again, just one day later. But the Huskies bats just did not have enough left in the tank and they lost 3-1.
The very next day, Wallace was drafted in the third round to the Colorado Rockies and Anthony Prato was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the seventh round.
It was a roller-coaster ride of emotions over just a couple of days. Saying goodbye is never easy for Penders and his players.
“They all know that I love them and really that is what I told them,” Penders said. “I thank them. Every year I thank them. But every team is different. This one, it was an emotional goodbye today. It’s so hard to say goodbye to such a team.”