Huskies to face ’Huskers
STORRS — When it was revealed that UConn would be facing Nebraska in an NCAA Regional opening game on Friday, junior infielder Anthony Prato turned to coach Jim Penders and asked, “Doesn’t Darin Erstad coach them?”
“Yeah,” Penders replied, with a smirk, “don’t you like our matchup?”
“Yes, you all the way, coach,” Prato said. “Head-tohead, definitely we’re for you.”
Penders was teasing, of course. And he admitted that there was no way he, a former UConn catcher, would ever have been able to throw out Erstad, a former Cornhusker star who played 14 years in the majors and once rapped 240 hits in a season for the Los Angeles Angels, on the basepaths.
Whether Penders can match wits with Erstad from the opposing dugouts will be determined on Friday at 1 p.m., when the third-seeded Huskies and No. 2-seeded ’Huskers face off at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City.
“I think the biggest thing,” said UConn senior outfielder John Toppa, “is it’s just another fun, exciting opportunity for us, to go and play some teams we might not have seen in the past, play as hard as we can and use the fun and exciting environment as a little extra juice. Everyone’s real excited to get going.”
Oklahoma City is the region’s top seed and Harvard rounds out the four teams in the regional.
UConn (36-22) is looking to continue its late-season momentum. Begining on May 14, UConn won at Rhode Island, took two of three from Tulane in a key American Athletic Conference regular season-ending series, then won its first three games of the AAC tournament in Clearwater, Fla., to advance to the championship game on Sunday.
That’s where the momentum took a little detour, as the Bearcats roared to a
22-5 win over the shellshocked Huskies. But Penders is confident his team can dust itself off from that loss and continue its recent strong play.
“Hey, it’s a brand-new season,” the longtime UConn coach said. “(Sunday) counted for one loss, last time I checked. Didn’t matter what the score was. We lost (Sunday), but it’s a brand new season today. Everybody’s
0-0, it’s a fresh start.” “We’ve come a long way in the last 10 days ,” Penders added. “At Rhode Island, we were really coming together, showing toughness that better exemplified the UConn team. If we throw out (Sunday), it was a really good stretch of ballgames. We played very, very well. Forget about (Sunday), we washed it off in the showers. Now it’s back at it, 0-0.”
Penders drove that point home to his players once they returned to campus on Sunday night.
“Coach said, whether it was 22-5 or 6-5, it’s still one loss,” Orange native and former Amity star Pat Winkel said. “It doesn’t matter that much after that. But, I think we showed a lot last week, from Tulane on. Our bats came alive, and that’s huge for the end of the season. We showed a lot about ourselves that some of us maybe even knew that we had, the fight we were able to bring toward the end of the season. If anything, I think that’s what we’re going to carry into the regional, not the loss (on Sunday).”
Penders said Nebraska (31-22) doesn’t run a whole lot and, like UConn, its biggest strength is its pitching staff. Penders is debating whether to start staff ace and potential high MLB draft pick Mason Feole on Friday against Nebraska, or hold him off for Game Two. The regionals are double-elimination format; win three games and you’re on to the Super Regionals.
One thing he does know is that if Nebraska is built anything like its coach, it will be a gritty, tough team to beat. Penders noted that UConn alum Harvey Shapiro, longtime Cape Cod League coach of the Bourne Braves and, before that, the Falmouth Commodores, coached Erstad with Falmouth.
“I know Darin is one of his most favorite people on the planet,” Penders said. “I know he’s a first-class individual. I’m looking forward to competing against him.”