FIELD OF DREAMS
Coach has spent 19 seasons with Huskies
Much has changed around UConn athletics since the fall of 1990.
Gampel Pavilion became the new home of the UConn men's and women's basketball teams, programs that have won a combined nine national championships. The football team moved from the Yankee Conference to the A-10, before finally settling in in the Big East and moving to the brand new Rentschler Field in 2003. But one constant, not on the hardwood in the winter, or on the gridiron in the fall, has been a man who has patrolled the dugout of J.O. Christian Field for 19 of the last 21 years, as both a player and a coach, Jim Penders.
The Holy Land
Penders, 38, not only comes from a long line of coaches, he comes from a history of success in a Connecticut uniform. As a senior in 1994, Penders, co-captain and catcher, led the Huskies to their most recent Big East Championship. His father, Jim, and his uncle, Tom, both graduated from UConn and played on the Huskies' 1965 College World Series team.
Hosted every year since 1950 in Omaha, Neb., the College World Series is the Holy Grail for college baseball players and coaches. Penders' career in the college game has taken him across the United States and Europe, where he has held several coaching clinics, but the holy land of Omaha has so far eluded him. Penders hopes that this year's team is talented enough to be one of the eight teams that compete for a national championship in June.
Though Penders himself has never been there, he is reminded of the College World Series each and every day he sits down in his office. Penders' office, tucked away inside Guyer Gym so much so that one can easily miss it, is not only home to the skipper of the No. 9 team in the nation, it has memories that span the last five decades of UConn's program.
Hung up on the wall is a photo from 1965 of Penders' father sliding in safely to score the winning run against Holy Cross. This run, in the 1965 New England Championship game played at Fenway Park, sent the Huskies to the field of eight in Omaha.
"All they had to do then was win the New England Championship and they go to Omaha," Penders said. "They have to beat Holy Cross two out of three and they go to Omaha. It's a little different now."
Penders compares Omaha to Mecca, but said that it isn't a taboo word around the clubhouse.
"That's Mecca," Penders said. "We all want to get there. There's 300 programs that all want to get to Omaha. We're never going to be afraid to talk about it, but it's nothing something we speak of every day. Are we preparing to get there? That's what I'm concerned about. Hopefully with our attitude, concentration and effort every day we're reflecting what it takes to get there."
With both Penders' father and uncle getting to Omaha, he often hears about it at family gatherings, and wants to take the program there himself.
"When I dream of going to Omaha, and I dream about it often, my father and uncle got there so I hear about it often," Penders said, "I dream of being in that dugout with Connecticut across my chest, no other school. I never really dreamt of being a college baseball coach – I've always dreamt of being the UConn baseball coach."
As much as not getting to Omaha yet may pain Penders, he isn't one to shy away from his shortcomings. Walking into the UConn baseball office, you pass by three Big East Tournament runner-up trophies, a constant reminder to Penders that not only is he chasing after Omaha, he's chasing after the championship he won as a player but has yet to win as a coach.
"That should keep us hungry," Penders said.
Sons of Storrs
Perhaps the most striking difference between the time that Penders was at UConn as a student-athlete and his time now as a coach is the upgrade in facilities. Penders said that when he was a player, the baseball team fought for practice time in the field house with Calhoun's basketball team.
"We used to hit in cages under the stairs in the dark," Penders said. "If you could hit in that, you could hit anywhere."
Penders said that if the team was lucky, and the weather cooperated, they might be able to field fly balls in an empty parking lot.
"Our field's pretty much the same as it was in 1994," Penders said. "I still would love to have a flush toilet somewhere, that'd be nice. But our training facilities have gotten a ton better."
More than a decade later, the team practices in the state-of-the-art Shenkman Center. But Penders' recruits, most of who come from New England, are still the same tough, scrappy and hard-working players that he suited up alongside in the 1990s.
The Huskies are the only ranked team from New England heading into the 2011 season, and are just one of a few New England teams to host an NCAA regional in the last 20 years. Historically, Connecticut has represented New England well, and currently holds a winning record against all New England opponents dating back to 1896. But, Penders is quick to point out, "being the best in the region isn't good enough."
"We're proud of being from where we're from," Penders said. "And I think it has a lot to do with the style that we play and the work ethic that we have. Folks do notice how we play the game and try to play it hard-nosed and aggressively, and I think that's what a lot of New England folks are known for. You have to be hearty; you got to want it a little more when it's not 72 and sunny every day. I think our guys do a really good job of capturing that spirit."
In a post on his blog, "Catching up with UConn Baseball," in February of last year, Penders likened the baseball season and the preparation that goes into it to a farmer preparing for the harvest. Penders closed the post by saying that the "sons of Storrs will be playing ball again," fitting, given that 17 of the team's players hail from the Nutmeg State. Penders himself is a native of Vernon and played his high school ball at East Catholic in Manchester.
Penders sees in his young recruits much of himself when he suited up in the National Flag Blue and white.
"I'd like to think the attitude is the same as it was in the early 90s and when my father and uncle played in the mid-60s," Penders said. "It's playing with a little bit of a chip on your shoulder. I call it, playing it with a little bit of ‘screw you'. Believing that you gotta play that much harder, and prepare that much better than the next guy."
"The only job I've ever wanted"
While it's hard to talk about UConn baseball over the last two decades without talking about Penders, there was a brief stint where he left the program for three years.
It seems Penders was born to be a baseball coach, and given his family history, the statement isn't far from the truth. His father, Jim, graduated UConn in 1966 and has been coaching at East Catholic High School since 1969. His grandfather Jim coached at Stratford High from 1931-1968. Combined, Penders' father and grandfather have won eight state championships and coached for 78 seasons.
"I grew up in a dugout," Penders said. "My grandfathers were both coaches, my uncle was a basketball coach, they all provide great examples to try to live up to. But also a lot of pressure. You can't screw up the name, you want to hand it off to your sons and daughters better than you found it. And that's a hell of a task when you got two fields named Penders Field in the state of Connecticut and neither one of them are named for you."
But upon his graduation from UConn in 1994, Penders, a political science major with deep coaching and Connecticut ties, uprooted and moved to Washington, D.C. to work as a fundraiser on the campaign of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin.
"I was interested in tackling that full bore," Penders said. "I thought I'd live in Washington, D.C. the rest of my life. I was totally prepared to make that my career."
But, Penders noted, coaching never fully left his mind.
"I think it's the line from "Godfather III," ‘Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in,'" Penders said. "That's kind of the feel that coaching always had to me. Everybody around me was a coach."
Penders thinks much of his work in Washington had to do with his desire to prove that he could be more than just a baseball coach.
"Initially, I gravitated toward something else just to prove that I could do something else," he said.
Penders took away many fond memories while working on Harkin's campaign, including meeting his future wife Brooke.
The pieces happened to fall together for Penders, who in the summer of 1996, was actually considering pursuing college coaching opportunities in the Washington area. If Harkin won reelection in November, Penders reckoned he would potentially get a job in Harkin's senate office. But if he took the job, he questioned whether or not he would want to pursue a career in Washington.
"If I stayed, I'd be engrained in it," Penders said. "But I was kind of dangling my toes in the coaching waters that summer."
Penders called his former coach and mentor Andy Baylock and told him he was thinking of pursuing coaching opportunities in Washington.
"He said, ‘You've got to be kidding me, [UConn graduate assistant] Marek [Drabinski] is interviewing for the Brown job,'" Penders said.
A few days later, Drabinski was named head coach at Brown, leaving open a graduate assistant position on the UConn roster.
"It was kind of a crazy coincidence that I called when I did," Penders said. "And yet, I think I was meant to coach. My mother was shocked when I told her that I was going to come back and take a huge pay cut. My father said, ‘What took you so long?'
Penders was back in Storrs in August. By the time Harkin won reelection in November, Penders was running fall ball practices and enrolled in a graduate program to receive a master's in education.
"I always say to every recruit we have, they ask, ‘how long are you gonna be here?' I say, ‘This is the only job I've ever wanted,'" Penders added.
The road ahead
Despite losing two starters to the MLB last season in Pierre LePage and Mike Olt, both of whom were drafted in June, Penders' 2011 club may be the best one he has coached yet.
Tabbed as high as No. 9 in some national polls, Connecticut comes into the season with a bullseye on their back. Penders knows that his team isn't going to be able to sneak by anybody this season.
Penders compared last year's campaign to "guerilla warfare," noting that UConn broke onto the scene nationally with little preseason expectation. But this year, things are very different.
"This season we'll be in formation, marching behind a drummer," Penders said. "We're going to stick out, but we can't get caught up in [the rankings]. We need to play the game one pitch at a time."
Penders brought up Randy Edsall's midseason speech to the media in which he told reporters that he fought hard not to let his players drink the "poison" of preseason rankings and expectations. UConn's football program, who many thought had a legitimate chance to win the Big East, did, but only after enduring several bumps along the way.
To further his message, Penders found a different way to reach his players. Penders said that each and every year the media finds one team from the North to fall in love with last year it was Ohio State. The Buckeyes came into the season ranked as high as No. 14. By season's end, the Buckeyes had put up a 28-23 record, going just 11-13 in the Big Ten, missing out on the postseason entirely and landing outside the top 100 teams in college baseball for the first time in recent memory.
In one of their first meetings before the 2011 season, Penders read aloud an article lauding the Buckeyes, but replaced one of their star hitters with George Springer, replaced their ace with Matt Barnes and substituted UConn for Ohio State. Penders has no problem with his team being a media darling this year, he only hopes that by season's end they have the record to back it up.
UConn's non-conference schedule this season can be likened to a murder's row of sorts, as the Huskies will travel the nation to play foes including Oregon State, Southern Miss and Cal.
"If we need to be humbled, we'll be humbled," Penders said.
Last year's squad set a program record with 48 wins, but fell short in the postseason -- losing in the Big East Championship Game to St. John's and falling twice to Oregon at the NCAA Regional at Dodd Stadium for a first round NCAA exit. Just like Penders is reminded of Omaha, a photograph of a packed Dodd Stadium for UConn's NCAA Tournament game against Oregon on the opposite wall of his office reminds him of how close last year's squad came to reaching their ultimate goal.
Penders attributes the program's recent success to an uptick in recruiting and the effort put in by assistant coaches Justin Blood, Steven Malinowski and Chris Podeszwa, but says that the program has always been based on attitude, concentration and effort. One of the great hallmarks of UConn baseball, Penders said, is a great hunger.
And so it begins
Penders may not be as fit as he was 17 seasons ago. He's aged, and there are now wrinkles in places where before there weren't any, and hair missing from places where it once was. No longer does he trot the base paths of J.O. Christian Field, or read signs from his crouch behind home plate. But, when Penders steps out onto the field from the dugout, this time into the coach's box beside third base, if you squint into the summer sun, Penders, with his youthful smile and vigor, doesn't seem all too far removed from his playing days.
On March 22, the Huskies open their home season against Holy Cross. The same Crusaders team that Jim's father's club bested in 1965 for a spot in Omaha. The stakes won't be nearly as high for Penders' club when they take on Holy Cross this time around, but he hopes this season ends in similar fashion. This June, Penders hopes to be peering out of the dugout of TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, with Connecticut across his chest, willing on the sons of Storrs as they battle for the program's first-ever national championship.
And maybe this time, it won't be in a dream.
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