STORRS, Conn. – Less than 24 hours after completing their four-game romp to the Big East Conference championship in Clearwater, Fla., the Connecticut baseball players were back home Monday, enjoying a little lunch hour pizza delivery.
Gathered in the dining hall at the Burton Family Football Complex, even the Big East trophy had a good seat for the NCAA tournament selection show when it began at noon. And as soon as the clock struck 12, all eyes were focused on the flat screen TV mounted high on the wall.
The Huskies waited, somewhat impatiently, as one region after another was announced. There was applause when UConn didn't appear in the Oregon regional. Apparently, Eugene wasn't on the radar.
There were groans of disappointment as the Fullerton and Los Angeles brackets passed by. Apparently, the Huskies had been California dreaming.
Finally, the graphic for the Blacksburg, Va., regional appeared on the screen, and when it showed the Huskies had drawn the No. 4 seed and would play host Virginia Tech on Friday, the cheering completely drowned out the TV audio.
"Bring ‘em on," one player yelled.
UConn (34-26) will play top-seeded Virginia Tech (38-20) Friday at 5:30 p.m. The Hokies were ranked No. 21 in the nation in Baseball America's May 20 rankings. The double-elimination regional will not be easy. No. 2 Oklahoma (40-19) won the Big 12 tournament championship Sunday with a 7-2 victory over Kansas and the Sooners will play No. 3 Coastal Carolina (37-21) at 1 p.m. Friday.
Coach Jim Penders and his players were still beaming with enthusiasm after Sunday's 8-1 victory over Notre Dame that gave the Huskies the Big East's automatic bid into the NCAA's field of 64. And Penders sees no reason why his team can't carry that momentum into the regional.
"In reality, wherever we're going, if we play like we did on Sunday afternoon, I like our chances against anybody," Penders said. "With that said, we're going to have a heckuva test."
|UConn celebrates Big East title|
Penders said righthander Carson Cross (8-4, 2.50 ERA) will start for the Huskies against Virginia Tech unless something physical prohibits that. Cross pitched into the 10th inning of UConn's 12-inning, 3-2 win over top-seed Louisville last Wednesday but didn't pitch again in the Big East tournament.
After pitching on the side Saturday, Cross told Penders he felt something wrong with his back. With that in mind, Penders made the decision to come back with Anthony Marzi on two days' rest in the championship game against Notre Dame. Marzi cashed in on Penders' confidence, throwing a four-hit, complete game for the biggest victory of his career.
"He was ready to out go there and beat somebody," Penders said Monday. "He's got that Berlin [Conn.] toughness. They win championships there. It's a gritty town. It's a real baseball town. They know how to win.''
Virginia Tech, hosting a regional for the first time, lost 4-1 to North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game Sunday. Prior to that, the Hokies had won 14 of their last 15 games. Tech is led by Tyler Horan (.349, 11 HR, 50 RBI) and Mark Zagunis (.336 9 HR, 48 RBI). Pitcher Devin Burke is 10-3 with a 3.30 ERA in 14 starts.
Coach Pete Hughes is in seventh season at Tech and is a longtime friend of Penders. Before moving to Blacksburgh, Hughes spent eight seasons at Boston College.
"He's one of those guys who became a head coach six or seven years ahead of me that I looked up to and still do," Penders said. "He does things the right way and his kids play tough, hard-nosed baseball. We're going to have our hands full. He's a very good skipper and an incredible motivator. They've been playing well at home.
"You can't get a good Italian meal down there, I know that. So we're in trouble there. But we're looking forward to it. It's an ACC team that's been built the right way."
This is UConn's third trip to the NCAA in the last four years and the Huskies have now made a total of 18 NCAA appearances.
You can view the entire NCAA bracket and see a video of UConn's reaction to the announcement on the UConnPlaybook.com Baseball Message Board.