Norwich Bulletin, Tali Greener) ** MANDATORY CREDIT **, Associated Press
STORRS, Conn. — Connecticut baseball players were preparing to shoot a promotional video for ESPN's upcoming NCAA tournament coverage when coach Jim Penders yelled at them to take off their jackets.
"We don't want people to think this is the Arctic," he said.
No. But is was May, and temperatures were hovering around 50 with a 20 mph wind as the Huskies practiced for this weekend's final home series of the season with Louisville.
Yes, they play baseball at Connecticut, and despite being a cold-weather team from New England, UConn (34-13-1) is likely headed to its second NCAA tournament in as many years. They won a school record 48 games last season.
The Huskies have won 26 of their last 30 games, are 18-3 in the Big East and need two wins in their final six conference games to clinch their first Big East regular-season title.
"We're to the point now, where we expect to win every game we play," Penders said. "We do believe that we can win a national championship and be from New England, but there is no question that it's a challenge."
When UConn began practice in late January there 3 feet of snow covered the outfield, and while future opponents were practicing in the southern and western sunshine, the Huskies were playing long toss inside the football team's indoor training facility.
As with most cold-weather teams, they opened on the road with trips to Florida, Texas and California, going 7-6 in those games.
"We're putting our spikes on for the first time in four our five months," Penders said. "The game is tough enough to play, but when you're coming out of a gymnasium or an indoor facility, it's not the same as feeling that dirt. I'll never forget (pitcher) Ryan Moore standing on the mound at the Yankee complex in Tampa saying, 'I love dirt, I miss the dirt.'"
But players say a cold spring in New England also has given the Huskies a bit of a home-field advantage. They came into the weekend 17-1 in their last 18 games, including a sweep last weekend at home over South Florida.
"Playing in the Northeast really makes the players tougher," said junior pitcher Matt Barnes, who came into Friday's game 9-3, with a 1.29 ERA. "Look at today, what is it 50, 55 windy, it was misting earlier and we're out here practicing. This is what UConn is. We're accustomed to the adversity and we're playing well."
Thirty-two of the 35 players on UConn's roster are from the Northeast, including 17 from Connecticut.
Barnes, who is from Berlin, and junior outfielder George Springer of New Britain are expected to be top picks in this year's major league draft. Springer entered Friday batting .376 with 10 home runs and 64 RBIs.
"If you have the talent, this is a perfect place to go," Springer said. "This is now for the guys who are in-state, they don't necessarily have to go to the Vanderbilts, the Floridas, the Fullertons, you also have a top-25 team here, in your back yard."
The team averages only about 200 fans at the 2,000-seat J.O. Christian Field, and its biggest games of the year are played after the campus has emptied out for the summer (graduation was last weekend). They also have played home games at minor league ballparks in New Britain and Norwich.
The players compete in the shadow of the men's and women's basketball programs, which have won 10 national titles since 1995, and an up-and-coming football program that went to the Fiesta Bowl this past season.
Penders, whose father, Jim, and uncle, basketball coach Tom Penders, both played on the Huskies' 1965 College World Series teams, said the program has been helped by the school's overall athletic success. Recruits, he said, are excited to meet basketball coaches Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma, something he is more than happy to use to his advantage.
He said it also can be an advantage to be playing in New England, with less competition for the attention of scouts, and three major league teams in the area. Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein attended a game last week to watch Barnes.
"We're a team that's starting to get more attention, national recognition," Springer said. "We have the talent, we have the coaching, and if you are good, it doesn't matter where you play, people will come and see you."
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