FIELD OF DREAMS
Coach has spent 19 seasons with Huskies
Published: Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, February 23, 2011 00:02
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.