The College Baseball Blog continues our series of interviews today with UConn head coach Jim Penders. He is entering his seventh season as the head coach and has been involved in the UConn program in 18 our of the last 20 seasons as a student-athlete, assistant coach, and his current role as the head coach. The Huskies finished last season with a 36-24 overall record while going 14-13 in Big East play as they finished in sixth place. They ended up losing to Louisville in the Big East Tournament final.
1. UConn is coming off a 36-24 campaign while going 14-13 in Big East play. What are your goals and expectations for the 2010 team?
Jim Penders: After playing and losing winner-take-all games for the Big East’s automatic bid in two of the last three years, we are focused on getting over the hump to win a conference championship and make a regional in ’10.
2. The Huskies lose two of the top four starting pitchers and closer David Erickson who led the team with 12 saves. Who do you see filling these spots in the rotation and in the bullpen?
JP: We did lose a good portion of our pitching staff last year, with all six pitchers that departed all either drafted or signed to pro contracts. However, we really like what we have returning. Elliot Glynn is coming off an all-star season in the Cape, and he knows how to pitch. We’ll look for him to set the tone on the weekend. Toward the end of last season, Matt Barnes established his presence as a power pitcher. Those two should give us a nice one-two punch. The other starters will probably come from a pool of two tested veterans in junior lefty Greg Nappo, and junior righty Bobby Van Woert, and sophomore right-hander Dave Fischer. Greg has been dominant for us at different times in his career, and Bob is fully recovered from his injury after having a great summer leading the Valley League in wins for Haymarket. Fischer made real strides this fall, and he has a very high ceiling. All three throw strikes, and have valuable experience. Freshman Pat Butler also has strong potential as a starter. It is going to be fun to see them battle for the starts. The back-end of the pen won’t be occupied by David Erickson any longer, and we’re going to miss him. Last year’s set-up man Dusty Odenbach also left big shoes to fill. Yet, Scott Oberg was very reliable last year as a freshman thrown into some fires, and senior Trent DeLazzer is about as steady a reliever as we’ve had at UConn. Senior Doug Jennings and red-shirt freshman Michael Zaccardo also have good stuff. While the other candidates don’t have a lot of game experience with us, they’ve each had a lot of success in the summer and/or in high school. Kevin Vance and Nick Ahmed are two-way players that bring good arsenals and great aggressiveness to the mound, and I like freshman Dan Feehan. He is a dynamic athlete and has a good sinking fastball that is very similar to Erickson’s.
3. Have any of the incoming freshmen impressed you during Fall Workouts? Do you expect any of them to break into the starting lineup/rotation this spring?
JP: Feehan and Butler have that potential on the mound. L.J. Mazzilli’s bat was impressive at times this fall, and I expect he’ll earn opportunities in the spring.
4. The Big East is getting stronger every year with the improvements to facilities and programs becoming fully funded. What team is going to be the biggest challenge to winning the 2010 Big East title?
JP: Anytime you have a two-time defending champion, I think you have to say they’re the team to beat. We open the Big East season in Louisville against the team that ended our last season. They will be very good again in 2010. I think the whole conference top to bottom will be better than it was last year, and every team can truly beat every other team on any given weekend.
5. UConn sent a few players to the Cape Cod Baseball League (example: Michael Olt and Pierre LePage) last summer. How do you decide where to send your players during the offseason?
JP: We actually had seven guys play in the Cape in 2009, and each of them fared well. Glynn made the all-star game at Fenway, and Pierre and George Springer made the postseason all-star roster. We aim to place guys in leagues in which we feel they’ll have an opportunity to be all-stars. It doesn’t help our team or the individual if we send them somewhere and they sit on the bench. We want them to play, play well, and get that confidence up.
6. We have now been through two seasons with the Uniform Start Date being in effect. What is your early opinion on the rule change?
JP: There’s no question the uniform start date was overdue and I like it. I just wish it were later. The impact is mitigated in that we have now pushed up the season a week earlier to mid-February.
7. How will the new rules with the way the scholarships can be split on the team affect your program? Do you think it is a good change for college baseball?
JP: I wish the university presidents allowed us a little more time to show the positive effect the transfer-rule was having on baseball’s APR before they told us how to spend our money. We already get a paltry allowance of 11.7 scholarships for a roster of 35 and now they’re telling us how to spend it. It’s kind of like having your parents take the family car keys away after they see a scratch on the car. They give back the keys, but now they’re riding in the passenger seat with their foot on the brake. The hardest mandate for me to decipher is why we must have eight guys out of the thirty-five receiving no scholarship money. If I have a recruited walk-on earn a starting spot, get good grades, and emerge as a leader, I’d like to reward him with scholarship money. Right now, if we don’t lose a guy who has a scholarship, and if I don’t have the minimum .25 to offer, I cannot reward that deserving walk-on student-athlete. If I have .24 left over after the draft, I must hold it or redistribute it to guys that already have scholarship money that might not deserve it as much as the walk-on. And, if the student-athlete doesn’t like that and wants to leave in order to potentially get a big scholarship somewhere else, he then has to sit out a year. A degree of meritocracy has been taken away in the favor of something else. I’m not sure what that is, but it’s got a kind of weird communist feel to it.
8. With the removal of the one-time transfer exemption that allowed student-athletes to change schools once without having to sit out a red-shirt year, do you feel that there is more pressure on a coach to recruit with responsibility or for the student-athlete to be aware of what programs are the best fit for them?
JP: The responsibility rests with both parties. Magnifying the need for full disclosure and open communication is not only the transfer rule, but also the ever-accelerating timeline for recruiting. In the last few years, we’re seeing a growing number of sophomores and juniors making commitments to schools and vice versa. At the end of the day, some marriages don’t work out, and occasionally there has to be a divorce. I worry more about the speed dating that is going on now with sophomores committing without doing due their due diligence on a school. It’s like we’re all going to the drive thru chapel in Vegas when it is more imperative than ever for both parties to get to know as much as possible before the wedding. We’re either going to have more divorces or a lot of unhappy marriages between coaches and student-athletes in college baseball.
9. Final question, who has been your biggest influence on your coaching philosophy or career?
JP: Being at UConn, I have a front row seat from which to learn from some of the best. Coach Calhoun, Coach Auriemma, and Coach Edsall are all at the top of the profession. And I’d like to think we take a little from each of their examples. However, without a doubt, my father, Jim has had the biggest influence. He’s heading into his forty-second year as a high school teacher and coach. He was a co-captain on the 1965 College World Series team here at UConn, and has positively impacted the lives of so many. If we can do it half as well, I’ll consider myself very blessed.
The College Baseball Blog would like to thank Jim for taking some time out of his busy schedule to answer these questions. Special thanks to UConn Baseball SID Kristen Altieri and UConn Assistant Coach Justin Blood for setting up the interview. If any other schools are interested in being featured on the site, feel free to email me by clicking here.