A bit later than I intended, but I’m back with another Inside the Webb edition, and the latest round takes one last look inside the Big East where a coach is doing great things at his alama mater.
Jim Penders knows what going to Omaha means. As a child, Penders heard stories of college baseball’s holy grail from his father Jim and his uncle Tom, as both played on the hallowed grounds of Rosenblatt Stadium as members of Connecticut’s 1965 College World Series team.
While the Huskies have accomplished a lot and made significant strides during Penders’ tenure, with the tradition within the Penders’ family as well as the Huskies’ program, he knows there is still work to be done.
“We still have a long way to go,” said Penders. “As a program we have been to Omaha five times and I want to get back as a participant. But I certainly am proud of the progress that has been made.”
The expectations and level of success sought to be obtained by the Huskies are displayed day in and day out, with a constant reminder of the excellence that preceded Penders.
“I’m just the third coach in the program since J.O. Christian,” said Penders referring to the legendary Huskies’ skipper who coached from 1936-61. “Larry Panciera (1962-79), Andy Blalock (1980-2003), and Christian all have their numbers retired and names on the outfield wall. It’s is a reminder of the standard you have to live up to and gives me pride to put on the Blue & White.”
Those mentioned standards could explain why though the Huskies set a program record with 48 wins in their 64 games played a season ago, Penders alluded to the fact his team did not reach any of the benchmarks set forth and there is not a sense of complacency settling in.
“We did not reach any of the goals we set last year,” said the coach who is now entering his eighth season. “Our goals were not to host a Regional, or to win 48 games, nor to win 22 in a row. We set our goals to win the Big East, win a Regional, and win a Super Regional to get to Omaha. We didn’t do any of those.”
Those failures have allowed Penders to keep his players hungry and humble as the 2011 season nears, but so too do the actions of the former Huskie himself.
“During the first meeting of the year I read the team an article,” said Penders. “It was a 2010 preseason article where I substituted Ohio State with Connecticut, Buckeyes for Huskies, their player’s names with ours, and our players thought that article was really about us.”
Penders hopes his Huskies do not follow the course that would embark the Buckeyes who were ranked as high as 14th in the preseason before finishing 2010 with a 28-23 record. Tying for seventh in the Big Ten, Ohio State failed to make the conference’s postseason tournament, let alone a Regional.
“We have a ton of respect for Ohio State, for what Coach Todd did who is a Hall of Fame coach, and the unbelievable amount of success they have had,” said Penders. “But I know they didn’t reach their goals and I just wanted our guys to be aware of that. You can get caught up in hype. Preseason rankings and such is very useful for recruits and boosters to feel good about, but it is absolute poison to us within the program.”
“Every year the media likes to pick a Northern sweetheart. Everyone falls in love with a Northern team that might get to Omaha. We refuse to drink the poison.”
While Penders wants his team to avoid the poison and to have blinders to the preseason hype, internally the bar has been raised and the desire to fulfill high expectations churn, if not publicly.
“We really focused on everyday keeping the same attitude,” said Penders on the autumn practice environment. “With talent we have back, we’re confident we’re capable of getting there, but at the same time, just as we are, there are 300 other teams that are undefeated at this moment. We’re never going to be afraid of talking about Omaha and getting there, but we also don’t talk about it every day. We talk about hitting the outside pitch, getting bunts down, running the bases properly.”
Before steps to Omaha can be made, steps to the top of the Big East ladder need be made first. As Louisville under Dan McDonnell has become the powerhouse program, Penders knows in order to reach the ultimate goal they first need to conquer those closer to home.
“We expect to compete for the Big East championship,” said Penders once again mentioning the first Connecticut baseball goal. “If we focus on the same goal, of the Big East title, nowadays if you win that, the rest, Regionals, and hosting, you’re in competition for.”
Each step Connecticut makes, every goal it achieves, and the success the program encounters is doubly special for Penders who has spent 18 of the past 20 years inside the Huskies’ program. As a player from 1991-1994, Connecticut advanced to NCAA Regionals in Penders’ final two seasons, also winning the Big East in 1994, a season Penders was a co-captain catcher.
After two years away from the Storrs, Connecticut campus, Penders served as a graduate assistant for two seasons before becoming a full-time assistant coach under Baylock from 1999 until taking over for his former coach following the 2003 season.
Now at the helm of what many feel is the most talented Connecticut team ever, Penders is in a position to cement his legacy among the great Huskie coaches. With a team that returns seven position players, all of which batted .300 or better led by a shoe-in first-round draft pick junior outfielder George Springer, and two thirds of its weekend rotation, also bolstered by an expected first-round pick in Matt Barnes, the chance for a special season is a reality for Connecticut.
While the head coach knows that the talent is there, he knows the Huskies will only go as far as their hard work will take them, a staple that has been passed down from Christian, to Panciera, to Baylock, and now Penders.
“We emphasize staying level and controlling what you can control. Focus, attitude, and effort are the only three things that you can control and mastering those is what we need to work on, said Penders. “I pride myself on never being too high, never being too low.”
When it is all said and done, Penders may be forced to take pride in one last thing, the 2011 season. A season that looks to be ready to someday have stories told of a special Huskies team can be passed down to the next generation of Penders.