Regardless of what happens in the NCAA baseball tournament, the first inning of Sunday's Big East championship game against Notre Dame will remain symbolic of everything that mattered at Connecticut this season.
Center fielder Billy Ferriter and second baseman LJ Mazzilli, both seniors, singled and homered to give the Huskies a 2-0 lead and UConn went on to an 8-1 victory that rescued a season and gave the Huskies a spot in the NCAA field. Instead of sitting home and watching regional competition this weekend, the UConn players are in Blacksburg, Va., ready to take on Virginia Tech Friday at 5:30 p.m. (ESPN3, WTIC.com, WHUS-91.7 FM).
"Neither one had to come back [this season]," UConn coach Jim Penders said this week. "Billy, I think, felt like he had some unfinished business and wanted to end on a different note; wanted to win a championship. LJ had hundreds of thousands of reasons not to return. And yet, I think he felt the same way. He hadn't done everything he had set out to do. And I'm so glad that they did come back."
When the 2012 season ended for UConn, the consensus opinion was that Mazzilli would turn pro. He was drafted by the Minnesota Twins, but was taken much lower than expected in the ninth round with pick No. 280. Mazzilli, the son of former major leaguer Lee Mazzilli, took his time and eventually decided to return to UConn.
"This is the exact reason why I came back, to have the opportunity to win a Big East championship – and we did," Mazzilli said before the Huskies departed for the Blacksburg Regional. "It was a tough decision. That's all you want to do, is play pro ball, when you're a baseball player growing up. You work your whole life for that. I think everything happens for a reason and this is the reason right now.
"This made it worthwhile, the whole season. It's a good group of kids. I think winning the Big East championship, especially the last one ever, is the greatest feeling, going out as a senior. But looking ahead with the regionals, super regionals and Omaha in the future – it's even cooler."
Mazzilli isn't ready for it to end. The Greenwich, Conn., native was selected to the Louisville Slugger/Collegiate Baseball Newspaper All-America second team on Thursday. He is a two-time All-Big East first team pick and had led the Huskies in virtually every offensive category over the past two seasons.
He enters UConn's third NCAA Regional appearance in the last four seasons with a career batting average of .343, 21 home runs, 137 RBI and an on-base percentage of .401. In 2013, he has posted career bests in batting average (.364) RPI (49) on-base percentage (.419) and stolen bases (28).
Despite the flashy stats, Mazzilli believes he has grown most as a defensive player and as a leader in his senior season.
Penders says both Ferriter and Mazzilli showed their leadership skills in the Notre Dame game, setting the tone with their first inning offensive efforts. Mazzilli enters the NCAA on a 10-game hitting streak.
"I told LJ, ‘I didn't think you could lead our team two years ago [in the NCAA tournament],' " Penders said. "But there's no question you're leading our team now – and just keep it up."
Mazzilli had one of the biggest defensive plays in the title game too. His sensational sliding stop on a ball headed to right field, stopped a Notre Dame rally. Penders had called for an outside pitch from Anthony Marzi. Marzi threw a fastball out and Penders instantly thought he had made a mistake.
"I put my head down," Penders said. "Then I saw out of the corner of my eye. Holy cow, LJ got to that ball. He doesn't get to that ball a year ago. That's a testament to the work he has put in."
Ferriter, from Nashua, N.H., was named winner of the Jack Kaiser Award, named for the former St. John's athletic director, which goes to the Big East tournament's Most Outstanding Player. Ferriter was 2-for-5 in the championship game with a run scored and batted .600 for the tournament. He had the game-winning RBI in the top of the 12th inning as UConn began it improbable tournament run with a 3-2 win over top seed Louisville.
"I wanted this my whole UConn career, to win a Big East tournament – that's the big one," Ferriter said.
Ferriter redshirted in 2009 and could have ended his UConn career after 2012.
"I was actually thinking about not coming back," he said. "I didn't know whether I wanted to do it again. [Penders said], ‘Do you want to come back and win championships?' That was the biggest thing that motivated me and we got it done.
"But it's never enough. You want to go out and win as much as you can."
That push begins today, against Virginia Tech .
"The trick is trying to play like that again," Penders said of the Big East tournament. "We've done it now. We finally broke through and did it. . . . Right now, I just have to focus on not screwing it up. Stay out of their way and let them play."