Over the last few years, UConn Baseball has seen a bit of a renaissance after some lean times. They had three College World Series appearances from 1965-1979, but heading into the 2010 season, the Huskies had only three NCAA Tournament appearances since.
Since 2010, UConn has four NCAA Tournament appearances and also won its regional in 2011, advancing to the Super Regional where they lost to South Carolina in a best-of-three series.
Nick Ahmed and Matt Barnes were two of the leaders of that team.
Ahmed, a shortstop, hit for a .326 batting average with 11 doubles over 51 games. Known for his speed and defense, he stole 23 bases and was only caught six times. Ahmed also committed only 10 errors in 287 chances that year.
Barnes took the ball on Friday nights for the Huskies, making 17 starts and posting an 11-5 record. He had an ERA of 1.93 and a batting average against of .187, throwing three complete games and notching three shutouts while striking out 117.
They were important players on a team that had gone farther than any Husky team before them in decades and they were drafted in the early rounds of the MLB Draft as a reward.
Barnes became the third player in program history to be a first round selection, going 19th overall to the Boston Red Sox.
“[UConn] was a crucial point in my development, going from high school and trying to become a professional player,” Barnes said. “The things that they taught me, the work ethic that they taught us and how to win, they were crucial at that point and transformed me into a better player and a better human.”
In addition to Barnes and Ahmed, George Springer and Scott Oberg are current major league players who were on the 2011 Super Regional team. Mike Olt has also made his Major League debut after being drafted in 2010.
“[Playing against them] is fantastic,” Barnes said. “I think it speaks volumes about what Coach Penders and the staff there has done from recruiting to building the players while we were at UConn.”
Ahmed was taken in the second round of the 2011 draft by the Atlanta Braves with the 85th overall selection.
“It’s a childhood dream to play in the major leagues. Sometimes you don’t think about it because you’re going about your business and doing your job but it is really cool and special,” Ahmed said. “And to do it alongside some of my teammates from college makes it even sweeter.”
Ahmed is currently with the Arizona Diamondbacks after being involved in the trade that sent Justin Upton to Atlanta, putting the shortstop in the same division as Oberg, a reliever for the Colorado Rockies. The pair meet on the diamond quite often.
“It’s special because when we go into scouting report meetings before the games and hear our teammates and coaches talking about the guys and I’m like, ‘I remember this goofball sitting on the bed in the dorm room doing stupid stuff and now I’m playing against him in the big leagues.’”
Not surprisingly, they all still follow the Huskies closely.
“All of us always keep tabs and check in on Coach Penders, especially when it comes to tournament time,” Ahmed said. “We wish them luck and try to make it up for a few practices in the fall.”
Coach Penders also makes sure to keep in touch.
“[Seeing them compete] is a thrill. I don’t always get to see them live,” Penders said. “My sons have learned how to read a box score in the old-fashioned newspaper and they usually tell me what they’ve done before I even get a chance to look at it myself.
“For them to spend the night with us, it means the world to me,” Penders said. “They made some effort to get here... I’m really excited to show them off.”
It’s not just Barnes and Ahmed making contributions at the major leagues, either. UConn had 16 professional baseball players across the major and minor leagues last year. That does not include Anthony Kay, who did not appear in a game due to having elbow surgery after he was drafted in the first round by the New York Mets.
“I thought John Andreoli should have been up there last year,” Penders said. “He has dominated every level he has been at. LJ [Mazzilli] had some great seasons, Vinny Siena and Anthony Kay just getting started. They all seem to be moving quickly and I think that’s a byproduct of all the competition they see in the conference and on their own team in college.”
Barnes, hailing from Bethel, Connecticut and Ahmed, from East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, are New England success stories. Penders is hopeful it will pay dividends locally on the recruiting trail.
“We love to get the Northeast kid,” Penders said. “I would prefer very much to stay local. There’s enough talent in southern New England to not only win conference championships but national championships.”
Baseball season is less than one month away as the Huskies are back on the diamond on Feb. 17 in Port St. Lucie, Florida against UMass-Lowell.