UConn draws Georgia Tech in NCAA tournament opener
Storrs — It's hard to pick what the UConn baseball team enjoyed more on Monday, watching a replay of their celebration after beating Houston in Sunday's American Athletic Conference tournament title game, or seeing its named flash up on the screen during the NCAA selection show.
The Huskies let out a roar for both memorable moments that came only minutes apart at the Burton Family Football Complex meeting room where they gathered. As an automatic qualifier, there was no suspense about being in the field.
They didn't have to wait long to find out their opponent and destination, as they popped up in the first group as the No. 3 seed in the Gainesville (Fla.) Regional. UConn (37-23) will face second-seeded Georgia Tech (36-23) at 1 p.m. Friday. No. 1 Florida and No. 4 Bethune Cookman meet in the other game at 6 in the double-elimination bracket. The host Gators are the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament.
"We've got a heck of an opponent in Georgia Tech," coach Jim Penders said. "It's exciting to be in Gainesville. It's one of the capitals of college baseball. ... It's a really strong regional and we're looking forward to getting started with the Yellow Jackets."
The Huskies will be making their first NCAA appearance since 2013 and 19th overall. It's their fourth trip in the last seven years.
They enter post-season play as one of the nation's hottest teams, winning 13 of their last 14 games. The joy ride began after they dropped four straight to start the month of May.
A 9-8 come-from-behind win over Northeastern on May 11 (UConn trailed 8-3 in the eighth) helped spark the streak. It was another example of the program's trademark fight-to-the-end mentality.
"We always pride ourselves on being gritty and determined," Penders said. "When we wear the uniform here, that's a prerequisite. You have to be gritty, you have to be determined. It's in our DNA at UConn. That's the thing that sets us apart hopefully from most of our competition. We know whoever we play against we're going to get their best shot so we have to be that team with the blue collar work ethic that's going to hustle and play until the last out is recorded.
"That's one of the things that really got us going. We were down to last our swing at Northeastern and Joe DeRoche-Duffin hit a home run and got us going. Then we got a couple more two-out hits ... That really was a turning point, I thought, from a momentum standpoint."
This is one of the most balanced teams that Penders will take to the postseason. The Huskies are strong defensively, committing only one error in five AAC tournament games. They may not be loaded with professional baseball prospects, but they score high marks in the toughness department, according to Penders.
They can't wait to take on their next challenge.
For junior Aaron Hill, the starting second baseman out of Fitch High School, it's his first post-season trip. Hill played a vital supporting role in UConn's AAC championship run, belting just his second career home run and earning a spot on the all-tournament team.
"It's pretty surreal," said Hill, who spent two summers playing for the Mystic Schooners in the New England Collegiate Baseball League. "I've never been able to play in a regional, so having a chance to go to the regionals with this team is pretty amazing."
Hill is one of four former Eastern Connecticut Conference players on the roster. Sophomore Troy Stefanski (Wheeler), junior Doug Domnarski and senior Connor Buckley, two Stonington High School graduates, also will make their first post-season trip.
"It's very exciting," said Domnarski, a reliever. "I always dreamed of playing in an NCAA tournament."
Stefanski is out for the season with a broken foot.
"I'd love to be out there helping the guys out," said Stefanski, who suffered the injury in early April. "But I love what they've accomplished as a team coming together and stepping up when guys need to step up and getting production from unlikely sources.
"We're a fun team to watch right now."
It's a terrific year for New England baseball programs, with five teams in the NCAA tournament. Rhode Island, Fairfield, Boston College and Bryant join UConn in the field.
"New England is getting it done," Penders said. "We beat a lot of those teams that are in there as conference winners in New England. I think we're prepared and we have to be."
The Huskies went 4-0 versus those four teams this season, beating each New England foe once.