Huskies to face ’Huskers

The News-Times - - SPORTS - By David Borges [email protected] hearst­medi­

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.”

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