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Elliot Ballpark is UConn's new home, sweet baseball home

Storrs — Opening day at Elliot Ballpark is still months away, yet the new facility already feels like home to the UConn baseball program.

The Huskies can't wait to show up for fall practice and don't want to leave when it ends.

"It's the best part of their day and it's by far the best part of my day," coach Jim Penders said. "I haven't had this much fun coaching in 10 or 15 years.

"These kids are so enthusiastic and it's just so much fun being around them. I didn't realize how much I missed it, having it all blow up in March and not being able to recruit and not being able to be around young people. Hopefully, we can continue to be healthy and continue here."

The COVID-19 pandemic not only abruptly ended the spring season in mid-March, but also canceled the much-anticipated first game at Elliot Ballpark on March 29 against Seton Hall.

Months later and after months apart, the Huskies returned to campus. They began working out at Elliot Ballpark in late September. They practice about five times per week.

"It's awesome," Penders said. "It doesn't get old. I pinch myself every day. I truly come out of the portal every day to see it pop the way you see your first baseball stadium coming out of the portal and it just opens up. It's a dream come true."

"It's just gorgeous. ... From a player development standpoint, from an aesthetics standpoint, from a motivational standpoint, it's a win, win win."

It's also been worth the long wait for a new ballpark for Penders, who's done more with less than perhaps any Division I baseball coach in the country ... and his program.

With Penders in charge over the last 17 seasons, the Huskies have won 30 or more games 13 times and earned six NCAA tournament bids. Fifty two players have either been drafted or signed by professional teams.

Now Penders has a gem of a new ballpark to help elevate his successful program to even greater heights.

"That's our hope," Penders said. "As a coach, you're always paranoid looking over your shoulder. Now the concern and the worry is we don't want to attract the kind of entitled player that might be attracted to the bells and whistles that we now have in our clubhouse or in our training room or weight room, or a ping pong table in our locker room. We want the same blue collar ethos in our players that we've always had and a chip on their shoulders.

"So we have to do an extra bit of homework and research on all our recruits to know that that's the type of character that we're continuing to get. It's easy to fall in love with the fact that there's guys that want to commit just seeing the pictures of the place. We still have to do our due diligence to make sure they're the right fit and they know what this place is really all about."

Elliot Ballpark isn't the only welcomed addition.

Down the line and beyond the left field fence is the state-of-the-art Rizza Performance Center, which will open in December. The facility will house offices, locker rooms, a strength and conditioning area, meeting rooms as well as indoor batting and pitching cages. The space also will be used by the softball, lacrosse and soccer teams.

Penders' office window will overlook Elliot Ballpark.

He looks forward to having his team together all in one space instead of spread around campus.

"You've got to credit Ray Reid and Tony Rizza and his family because we don't get that (performance center) without them," Penders said. "We wanted a baseball stadium. Now we're getting not just a baseball stadium but a player development center."

"... Baseball is about going home. We're finally home. And we're going to have one spot."

Penders' daily list of worries also is shorter now than in the past when the Huskies played at J.O. Christian Field because weather is rarely an issue. The Huskies already have practiced some rainy days on the turf field that they wouldn't have been able to at their old baseball home.

That's a big bonus.

"My colleagues at other colleges that had this kind of artificial surface said it's going to change your life and I kind of pooh-poohed that," Penders said. "But with the lights and the surface, it really does. ... It's so much better than I thought it could be."

Players also are sticking around longer after practice to put in extra work, aiding in their development and team chemistry. The fall season has been so much more productive.

The Huskies will continue to work out and hold intrasquad scrimmages until the first week of November.

Penders is hopeful that there will be spring season. He expects to have another strong team built around talented pitching.

He can't imagine what opening day at the 1,500-seat facility will be like.

"I get emotional just thinking about it," Penders said. "Seeing these stands full and that berm filling up. We were playing organ music in the office the other day and getting excited about just the big time atmosphere that this is going to allow us to have and all that goes with it.

"It finally feels like a major national program. I think we've had that kind of program. Now we have a home that befits it."

g.keefe@theday.com

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