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How UConn baseball advanced to its first Super Regional since 2011

The Huskies passed their test in the regional with flying colors.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

They did it.

UConn baseball made its first Super Regional since 2011 and set the program record for wins in a season with its 49th victory on Monday night, an 8-7 decision over No. 15 Maryland in the seventh game of the College Park Regional.

The Huskies were the 3-seed in the regional, along with the Terrapins and Wake Forest, each of which were in the top-10 in the RPI, as well as LIU. Jim Penders’ club had put together an impressive regular season but received an appropriate seed.

Despite a gaudy record, UConn had faced just one Quad 1 opponent all season in a single game, nine more against Quad 2 schools and 33 of its 59 contests against Quad 4 opponents, which lead to an RPI in the low 40s. That put the Huskies well out of the range to host, especially considering the tournament committee’s emphasis on non-conference strength of schedule, where UConn ranked No. 229 out of 301 Division I teams according to Warren Nolan.

The Huskies’ record could not be argued with at 46-13, but their lack of quality opponents left them lower on the pecking order since they were unproven against NCAA Tournament-caliber competition.

While not a point of emphasis for the committee, a lack of quality opponents left UConn with a strong record heading into the NCAA Tournament in 2021 and the Huskies were exposed by No. 10 Notre Dame and Central Michigan, surrendering 37 runs in three games in the South Bend Regional, including 26 in their matchup against the Fighting Irish.

With a pair of top-10 teams awaiting in College Park, there was concern the same thing could happen again, especially since two of those 10 games against top-100 teams occurred the first weekend of the season, leaving room for the Storrs Nine to get fat on Quad 4 weekend series sweeps against North Florida (No. 164 in RPI), Seton Hall (No. 189), FIU (No. 223), St. John’s (No. 225) and Butler (No. 242).

However, this was a new year.

After Rhett Lowder — ACC Pitcher of the Year and likely the best arm UConn faced all year — rolled through the first eight hitters he faced for Wake Forest in Friday’s opener, Zach Bushling made an adjustment and ripped a double into the right-center gap, scoring when the lineup flipped over and David Smith recorded a single. From then on, Lowder would not retire more than three straight Huskies and the seven earned runs and 10 hits each were season-highs for the sophomore after he pitched to a 2.61 ERA in the regular season, never allowing more than three earned runs in a start.

UConn was suddenly 2-0 for the first time in 50 years after a pair of home runs fueled a three-run seventh and a four-run eighth against hosts Maryland, breaking open what was a closely battled contest to that point.

The Huskies had never been in this position, despite making regional finals in both 2018 and 2019. They did so from the loser’s bracket in both years.

Maryland, with its backs against the wall, played from in front by jumping on starter Enzo Stefanoni for three runs in the first inning. While Terps pitcher Nick Robinson, who had a 7.61 ERA across 23 23 innings this year heading into his outing, kept UConn at bay across five scoreless frames, the team stayed calm.

Once Robinson departed with a 4-0 lead, the Huskies took advantage of three walks, a hit-by-pitch and two wild pitches across three Terrapin pitchers, using the six free bases to tie the proceedings. Ultimately, the hosts still forced a winner-take-all Game 7 with a walk-off win in the 11th inning.

Winning a regional takes gutsy pitching performances, a role that was served by Friday starter Austin Peterson. After delivering to home plate 109 times against Wake Forest, he would do so 50 more times on Monday in a do-or-die situation, helping build a bridge to closer Justin Willis through the middle innings. He earned the win, surrendering two runs on a pair of hits and walks each, while striking out five across 2 13 innings of work.

It’s not easy to move on to Super Regionals. Just ask the 2010, 2013, 2016, 2018, 2019 and 2021 iterations of the Huskies. It’s even harder to do so in the Northeast, where travel is aplenty, good opponents are few and far between and keeping players home — and thus away from the SEC and ACC — can be a challenge.

Games are not played on paper. It was obvious from watching the ball club that the Huskies had talent. Just how much was unclear. Now, they’ve had a chance to truly prove it, passed the test and stand two victories against No. 2 Stanford away from Omaha, a journey to which the program has not made since 1979.