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UConn baseball still looking for NCAA Tournament breakthrough

The Huskies have been frequent regional participants but haven’t made a super regional since 2011.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Winning a college baseball regional is difficult. While a double-elimination bracket is less random than the single-elimination nature of most other NCAA Tournaments, home-field advantage, depth and a healthy dose of luck all factor in to advancing to the second weekend and super regional play.

With the help of six future major leaguers, UConn last made a Super Regional in 2011, advancing out of the Clemson Regional. Even more impressive, the Huskies did so out of the loser’s bracket after being soundly defeated by Coastal Carolina in their opening matchup.

Since then, Jim Penders’ teams have made six Regionals (2013, 2016, 2018, 2019, 2021 and 2022), including regional final appearances in 2018 and 2019, forcing a winner-take-all Game 7 in 2019. However, each of those years ended in heartbreak.

UConn’s best chance to move on arguably came in 2018. As a northern team, the Huskies were in the top 20 in the RPI at the end of the American Athletic Conference Tournament, which is no small feat, but a third-place regular season finish in The American and no tournament championship was too much to overcome. Instead, the team traveled to No. 15 Coastal Carolina in the Conway Regional, as the Chanticleers and No. 16 NC State Wolfpack were chosen to host over UConn.

Armed with a top-line starter in Mason Feole, PJ Poulin as a lock-down closer and a strong offense led by Zac Susi, Anthony Prato and Isaac Feldstein — combined with a chip on their shoulder from being denied the opportunity to host — the Huskies looked dangerous in what was seen as a favorable draw. Washington was barely above .500 in top-50 RPI games and had to travel across the country while UConn had already beat Coastal Carolina in a midweek game in March.

However, an eighth inning filled with miscues in the opener sank the Huskies against Washington, turning a one-run deficit into a six-run hole that proved too big to erase. After topping LIU Brooklyn, UConn won a classic against Coastal Carolina in an elimination game, setting up a regional final against Washington.

Looking to force a Game 7 on Monday, miscues bit the Huskies again as they committed four errors and made five outs on the basepaths, falling 9-6 to Washington, which would end up making the College World Series.

UConn was off to the Oklahoma City Regional in 2019 and again went out of the loser’s bracket, dropping the opener to Nebraska despite a 19-hit effort. However, this edition of the Huskies forced that Game 7 against the hosts — No. 9 Oklahoma State. In the first game of the regional final, Prato hit a clutch home run in the seventh, while Caleb Wurster, CJ Dandeneau and Jake Wallace — who punched out all seven batters he faced — shut down the dangerous Cowboys’ lineup and went into the winner-take-all finale.

Despite another outstanding performance from Wallace and the rest of the pitching staff, the offense went quiet at key moments, registering only five hits. Oklahoma State prevailed, 3-1.

Perhaps most relevant to the current UConn team is last year’s appearance in the South Bend Regional. At the start of the year, the Huskies struggled out of the gate against strong competition in Virginia and Texas Tech, the former of which made the College World Series and the latter of which was the No. 8 overall seed and hosted a Super Regional. However, UConn caught fire after a 4-10 start when the competition got easier, winning 29 out of their next 36 games through the Big East Tournament. The Huskies did not play a Quad 1 game in that stretch and had just eight Quad 2 contests.

Austin Peterson led his team to a 6-1 win over Michigan in the opening round, but UConn was ill-prepared for slugger Niko Kavadas and No. 10 Notre Dame, which put up 26 runs on Ben Casparius and the rest of the pitching staff before Central Michigan added 14 in an elimination game victory.

Baseball can be a random game. If a pitcher is on and has his best stuff, it doesn’t matter how good the hitters on the other side are or what the other team’s starter is doing, it’s likely that squad is coming home with the win. Sometimes an offense goes cold at an unfortunate time, as in 2019, or uncharacteristically poor defense rears its ugly head, as in 2018.

After a 56-game regular season and a conference tournament, the season comes down to seven games between four teams, a small sample that provides for plenty of unexpected outcomes.

This season, UConn will look to for its first NCAA Tournament breakthrough since 2011 when it heads to the College Park Regional, hosted by No. 15 Maryland. The Huskies will take on 2-seed Wake Forest in the opening game on Friday at 1 p.m.