UConn baseball has long taken advantage of transfers to build out its roster, well before the new transfer rule took effect. Pitching coach Josh MacDonald has been traveling into central California for years to add new players.
The new transfer rule, put into place in April of 2021, has allowed UConn to expand its horizons. Enzo Stefanoni from Harvard and Cole Chudoba from Assumption College will both compete for starting pitcher roles, while UConn’s ace from last year, Austin Peterson, is a transfer himself.
The Huskies will be relying on transfers even more in the starting lineup. Newcomers Ben Huber, Casey Dana, and Matt Donlan are set to replace the leaders that departed Storrs this summer.
“I think this year in particular was one we knew we were going to lose a lot of veteran players and we tried to plug the holes,” Head coach Jim Penders said. “The first thing we’re looking for is the best Connecticut high school players, but the second thing is high-quality transfers. And I think we’ve been fortunate in finding these guys who have high character, and know what hard work is, so they fit into the culture.”
Out of all the UConn newcomers, Ben Huber catches your eye first. He’s a house at 6-foot-3, 245-pounds, and even though he’s risen a long way through the sport of college baseball in a short time, there’s no doubt that he belongs.
Huber played three years at Division II Limestone College in Gaffney, South Carolina, where he entered as a good player for the level and exited it clearly ready for a new challenge. In his last year, he led the conference in average (.439) and slugging (.742), hitting 10 home runs, and led the team in all major statistics, including RBIs (48), total bases (98), and on-base percentage (.519).
Huber is filling a gaping hole in the lineup and at first base, with Reggie Crawford on the mend for the season rehabbing a ligament injury. Crawford’s 63 RBI, 13 homers, and 62 hits won’t be easy to replace, but both Penders and Huber have tremendous confidence that they can get it done.
“The best way to describe me is I’m basically Reggie Crawford, I just hit right-handed instead of left-handed,” Huber joked in the locker room after a scrimmage.
“I think he’s one of the top additions to our conference, certainly, if not to Division I baseball,” Penders said. “When he starts running I don’t want to get in his way, I mean, he’s as strong as an ox. When he hits the ball hard, when he hits the ball on the line, it gets out in a hurry.”
Another one of UConn’s impact transfers didn’t have to travel far to join the Huskies. Casey Dana made the trip from northern New Jersey to Storrs this summer, transferring from Seton Hall.
Dana was one of the best non-UConn players in the Big East in 2021, hitting .306 and leading the team with seven home runs and 36 RBI, but left a respectable Seton Hall team for a chance to play in the NCAA tournament, and ideally, the College World Series.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound slugger played all around the infield for the Pirates, but Penders challenged him with a move to the outfield in the offseason to take advantage of his athleticism and strong arm.
Behind the plate, Matt Donlan also has large shoes to fill. Patrick Winkel was one of the Huskies’ best players overall in his two-and-a-half seasons in Storrs, a practically pro-ready catcher in terms of arms strength and skill at the plate, batting .295 with 18 home runs, 11 hits, and 80 RBI.
Donlan comes to UConn from Stonehill College, originally from Guilford, Connecticut. He landed on the NE-10 All-Rookie team in 2019, and in 2020 was named Breakout Sophomore of the year. He has a reliable rocket of an arm, one of the best that Penders has seen in his entire career, throwing out 36 players in his two seasons at Stonehill. The transfer had a breakout this season this year in summer ball, earning the John J. Claffey Award, given to the best prospect in the Cape League from New England.
Freshman Matt Garbowski will rotate with Donlan at catcher after an extremely good fall and spring at the plate. Garbowksi is another Connecticut native, competing deep in the state playoffs for New Fairfield. He has power and hits to all sections of the field, and will vie for the DH spot in addition to appearing at catcher.
UConn is fortunate enough to rely on experience to round out the rest of the infield. Christian Fedko will feature at second base for the third straight year, providing the team with veteran leadership. Fedko hit .295 last year with 56 hits and was a doubles machine, leading the team with 15 two-baggers. He was able to add to his growing legacy as a clutch postseason hitter, going 3-for-5 against Central Michigan and 2-4 with two doubles and RBI at No. 10 Notre Dame in the South Bend regional.
Zach Bushling and his sure glove will return at shortstop after providing a spark at the top of the order for UConn in 2021, with 10 stolen bases and a .372 on-base percentage.
Redshirt sophomore Chris Brown rounds out the rest of the infield, looking to build on his breakout season in 2021. Brown slashed 296/.352/.475 with 5 home runs and 10 doubles. He started 44 games in 2021, and is expected to make the third base spot his own in 2022.
Providing competition for the middle infield is another transfer. Third-year junior David Smith joined the team in 2020, but sat out in 2021 due to the transfer rules at the time. Smith is a speedster who figures to sit near the top of the order. He had 10 stolen bases in just 14 games in 2020 before COVID ended his season.
The outfield features one of the Huskies’ most experienced starters. Erik Stock is the returning leader in several statistical categories for UConn, including batting average (.364), slugging (.556), and on-base (.426). He has a nice, even swing with power to all three fields, and is a defensive presence in center with a laser arm.
The Huskies will receive yet more power from Kevin Ferrer in left field. The redshirt sophomore from Pawcatuck, Connecticut is a bat-first outfielder, and provided some serious juice to the UConn lineup in 2021, hitting .275 with nine multi-hit games. Fourth-year speedster T.C. Simmons could get his long-awaited time in the sun this season as well, as a defensive option in the outfield. Sophomore Korey Morton is another athletic option off the bench for the Huskies, used mainly as a pinch-runner in 2021 but looking to feature in the lineup more consistently in 2022.
UConn’s lineup itself figures to be pretty balanced, with solid hitting up and down the order. Here’s my guess at how it will all shake out when the Huskies open their season on Friday, February 18 against South Florida.
Zach Bushling, SS
Erik Stock, CF
Casey Dana, RF
Ben Huber, 1B
Christian Fedko, DH
Andrew Ferrer, LF
Chris Brown, 3B
Matt Donlan, C
David Smith, 2B