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UConn baseball looking forward to 2021 campaign after extended offseason

A new conference and home ballpark have the Huskies hankering to get their season started despite the looming threat of COVID-19.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

UConn baseball’s 2020 season was chopped off at the knees far before the first pitch was thrown. Coronavirus (COVID-19) wasn’t a huge topic in the United States when the Huskies kicked off their season with a 1-2 weekend against Cal Poly and the two participants in the College World Series final (Vanderbilt and Michigan), but the then-epidemic was always going to be an issue for college athletics.

It would take almost a month for college—and professional—athletics to come crashing down due to the virus, but not before the Huskies scored what would have been their crowning non-conference achievement, a series victory over No. 1 Michigan, and their biggest non-conference flop, a 2-1 series defeat to New Orleans.

The Huskies’ last few games of the season, a series sweep of Presbyterian and a win at Hartford, were some of their worst performances of the season, according to head coach Jim Penders.

Playing poorly and still coming out with a victory typically bodes well for the rest of the season, but the rest of the season never arrived. UConn’s 2020 season was relegated to a what-if.

The Huskies had few departures — thanks to the NCAA rule that all spring athletes could seek an extra year of eligibility if their season was cut short due to COVID-19 — but a couple of significant players did leave over the offseason. Anthony Nucerino, who started 29 games during the 2019 campaign, donned his cap and gown and graduated along with defensive wizard Conor Moriarty and outfielder Michael Chiovitti.

A handful of players also transferred from the program: redshirt freshman pitcher Leif Bigelow is now at Maine, and Paul Gozzo, the hard-hitting catcher who was second on the team in slugging in 2019, is now enjoying the sunshine at the University of California-San Diego.

But the majority of players from the 2020 team are returning, and we got to see some of them in action when baseball finally returned — on an extremely limited basis — this summer. Infielder Christian and outfielder Kyler Fedko played in the Connecticut Collegiate Baseball League alongside Kevin Ferrer and Ben Maycock, batting against pitchers Will Lucas and Colby Dunlop.

That took them to autumn, where their usual fall ball practices took an entirely different form. Elliot Ballpark wasn’t the only new baseball facility to open up while the program was on a pause due to COVID in addition to the regular offseason. The new training facility attached to the project has a team-specific cafeteria, weight rooms, and meeting rooms that really transformed their offseason prep, Penders said.

“We are all super excited to get back out there, I think it’s been awesome to scrimmage at Elliot Ballpark but we are ready to face an opponent,” captain Chris Winkel said.

Going into the 2021 season, the Huskies also have a new conference to look forward to. Playing in the Big East will certainly be a step down from The American, but the new opponents will certainly require less travel, and their road game against Creighton gives them the chance to play in TD Ameritrade Park, which is the venue for the College World Series.

The specter of COVID-19 still hangs over the new season, however, just like it did the last. UConn has scheduled 61 games instead of the usual 56, citing the need to have options if and when an outbreak occurs.

In addition, college baseball as a whole has adopted certain in-game preventative measures to combat the spread. Whether they’ll work or not, considering the players still share a locker room and weight room, remains to be seen.

More uncertainty hangs over this college baseball season than the last, but after a long offseason and two sports seasons’ worth of knowledge to draw from, this year will hopefully be a safe and successful one for the Huskies.