Clemson Regional: UConn 14, Clemson 1

June, 6, 2011
06/06/11
11:24
PM ET

CLEMSON, S.C. -- A year ago, Connecticut pitcher Greg Nappo called Huskies coach Jim Penders on the second day of the amateur baseball draft.

Nappo, then a junior from Madison, Conn., had been selected in the 12th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Penders told Nappo he needed to turn pro.

"You've done everything we've asked you to do," Penders told him. "You need to take advantage of this opportunity. There's nothing left for you to accomplish."

Penders said he was stunned by Nappo's response.

"I haven't won a championship yet," Nappo said. "I want to come back and win a championship."

On Monday night, Nappo helped lead the Huskies to one of their biggest victories in more than three decades, a 14-1 victory over No. 1 seed Clemson in the winner-take-all game of the Clemson Region at Doug Kingsmore Stadium.

Nappo allowed five hits and one run in 5 2/3 innings, and the No. 2 seed Huskies scored three runs in the first inning and never looked back.

"Before the game I told him, 'This is what you came back for -- to win a championship,'" Penders said. "I couldn't wait to put the ball in his hand."

The Huskies, who won their first Big East championship this season, advance to next week's super regional at defending national champion South Carolina, the No. 4 national seed. With two victories over the Gamecocks, UConn will return to the College World Series for the sixth time and first since 1979.

It took plenty of work for the Huskies to get to this moment.

After losing to Coastal Carolina 13-1 in their opening game of the regional, the Huskies won four games in a row, including a 7-6 victory over Clemson on Sunday night.

"I couldn't be more proud of my guys," Penders said. "They played their hearts out and just didn't want to go home. Their intensity was just awesome and they played with no fear. There was no way they were going to get beat tonight, and that's taking nothing away from Clemson."

The Huskies might be the most unlikely participant left in the NCAA baseball tournament. Connecticut has a rich baseball tradition, but nearly all of it came before aluminum bats and radar guns.

In a sport that has long been dominated by teams from warm climates like the Southeast, Southwest and West Coast, the Huskies are one of the country's hottest teams in the postseason.

Because of cold weather, the Huskies spent the first five weeks of the season on the road, playing three games in Florida, three in Texas, seven in California and three more in South Carolina. When they finally returned home to play Holy Cross on March 22, the game ended in a 2-2 tie after 16 innings because of darkness. The Huskies' home field, J.O. Christian Field, doesn't have lights.

"I've lived up there, played up there and coached up there," said Clemson coach Jack Leggett, a native of Bangor, Maine. "It's hard. [But] there are good players everywhere. It's not like there are only good players in the Southeast. There are good players up there and they're tough."

Penders, who played at Connecticut and worked as an assistant coach before being promoted to head coach eight seasons ago, built his roster around home-grown products. Half of the Huskies' 32 players are Connecticut natives, and Penders said five of Monday night's starters came to the school without scholarships.

"They came because they wanted to be part of something that was bigger than them," Penders said.

Two of the Huskies' best players are home-grown products.

Connecticut center fielder George Springer, a native of New Britain, Conn., was drafted with the No. 11 pick by the Houston Astros on Monday night, the highest a Huskie player has ever been selected. About an hour later, right-handed pitcher Matt Barnes, a native of Bethel, Conn., was taken with the No. 19 pick by the Boston Red Sox.

Before Monday night, former Cleveland Indians pitcher Charles Nagy, who was taken No. 17 overall in 1988, was the only other UConn player ever selected in the first round.

Thanks to Nappo and the rest of the Huskies, it was perhaps the most memorable night in the program's history.

"It means a lot to come down South and do it here," Penders said. "You don't have to leave our borders to get a good college experience and a good college baseball experience. Every kid from Connecticut wants to play basketball at Connecticut. That's becoming the case in football now, too. We're hoping we can follow their models."

Mark Schlabach | email

College Football and Basketball

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