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How transfers helped get UConn baseball over the hump in the NCAA Tournament

Three years after featuring just a single transfer from another four-year school, the Huskies now have 10, many of whom are key contributors.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

As UConn baseball waited out a rain delay during the 2019 Oklahoma City Regional, pitching coach and recruiting coordinator Josh MacDonald decided to pull out his phone and check the transfer portal. He noticed a new name that had been in for all of five minutes and immediately called the player. Roughly a month later, he committed to UConn.

The player was Erik Stock, UConn’s left fielder who currently leads the team with 257 at-bats, 94 hits and 23 doubles and ranks second with a .366 batting average and 1.042 OPS.

The Huskies’ 2019 squad that fell in the Oklahoma City winner-take-all final featured a single transfer from a four-year school — catcher Paul Gozzo.

This year’s team, which made the program’s second-ever super regional, features 10 — pitchers Austin Peterson (Purdue by way of Wabash Valley CC), Justin Willis (Vanderbilt), Enzo Stefanoni (Harvard), Cole Chudoba (Assumption) and Kenny Campbell (Lafayette); catcher Matt Donlon (Stonehill College), first baseman Ben Huber (Limestone College), second baseman David Smith (LaSalle), right fielder Casey Dana (Seton Hall) and Stock (Old Dominion).

While head coach Jim Penders has preferred to build his team by bringing in freshmen, developing them over four years and using JUCO additions to plug the holes left by draftees, he knew the landscape of the sport was changing and he needed to adapt. Not only did the introduction of the transfer portal make it easier for players to change schools, the bonus COVID year and the one-time transfer rule flooded the market.

“When the portal started, we had to get in there. You gotta embrace it,” Penders said. “You have to be agile in our profession. I don’t coach the same way I did six months ago, let alone six years ago. You have to be ready to change and if I want our players to change and adapt, I better be setting that example too.”

UConn’s influx of transfers can also be attributed to the way the roster turned over.

“We had guys graduating and moving on and the roster was bigger, so there were more openings than we’ve ever had,” MacDonald said. “We identified areas that we thought that we would have — potential gaps that had to be filled.”

With the staff expecting to use first baseman Reggie Crawford more as a pitcher, they got Huber to fill in. The move became even more valuable when Crawford underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery since the Huskies already had a ready-made replacement. When Chris Winkel graduated and Kyler Fedko turned pro, Dana came in as a power bat in the outfield. MacDonald felt the team needed one more starter, so they added Stefanoni.

All the picks-ups were borne out of need, one way or another.

“We’re just trying to fill potential major issues,” MacDonald said. “It’s more ‘Where are the potential problems?’”

After coming up short in regional finals in both 2018 and 2019, UConn finally broke through to super regionals this year. The transfers have played a central role — Peterson is the team’s ace and the “most consistent pitcher in my tenure,” according to Penders; Willis shuts the door as the closer while Donlan, Huber, Smith, Dana and Stock are all starters at their respective positions.

However, their contributions have made the unexpected emergence of younger players all the more valuable. They’ve transformed UConn into a team capable of just making the NCAA Tournament field into one within reach of the College World Series.

“If I knew Ian Cooke was gonna be as [he is], I don’t know if I grab Enzo,” MacDonald said. “Or if I knew that [Jack] Sullivan and [Brady] Afthim were really good, do I go after Cole? But the idea is that you’re not a worse team with more talent, right? You’re just not. As long as you can help those guys navigate through and find roles and find a place to be successful, the portal is going to be gonna be good to us.”

It’s proven to be a symbiotic relationship, too. Most of the transfers came to prove themselves, whether at a higher-level program than where they were, at the Division I level or to professional scouts. That mentality has not only made UConn a better team, it’s helped the players improve as well.

“All those guys could have come in and thought, ‘I gotta get mine and I’m gonna think about me and I’m thinking about the draft.’ It wound up being the exact opposite,” Penders said. “I think they found something here that a rising tide raises all ships and they’ve realized that winning is the best developer — winning championships in the best developer.”

Four seasons ago in Oklahoma City, UConn fell tantalizing short of super regionals with a team built on the back of a then-junior class that included star shortstop Anthony Prato, ace Mason Feole and closer Jake Wallace. Only one player from that squad — Fedko — remains with the program. Now, the Huskies have transformed into a transfer-heavy team, one just two victories away from going to Omaha for the first time since 1979.

“We always call ourselves ‘Last Chance UConn’ because a lot of us came from the portal and transferred from other schools,” Stock said.