By Tim Tolokan
STORRS, CT--It's time for a new home for UConn baseball!
The 2018 college baseball season is the 51st year that the University of Connecticut baseball program will play its home games at the current J.O. Christian Field in Storrs.
On the horizon (actually across the street) a new stadium will be built to provide the proud and tradition-rich Husky program a 21st century complex reflective of the University's commitment to national-level baseball excellence.
Construction is scheduled to begin during summer 2018 for the Husky Athletic Village and Performance Complex. The project, when completed, will showcase three new stadiums for baseball, softball and soccer as well as a soccer practice field and a large building facility to provide support services (coaches offices, locker rooms, sports medicine, strength training, equipment, etc.) for each program.
As has been the case with other UConn Athletics building projects, private dollars generated through generous donor support will play a vital role in helping underwrite the cost of the Husky Village.
UConn athletics is actively pursuing $25 million in philanthropy for the multi-faceted baseball/soccer/softball project. To date, private donors have committed approximately $18 million. This success demonstrates the passion that UConn Nation has for our student athletes and athletic programs, but there's more work to be done to build facilities that position our student athletes and coaches to win championships. For the baseball program, the fundraising effort includes former players and extends to alumni and other Husky fans who have witnessed ongoing success dating back through four separate eras.
During the past 83 years (1936-2018), just four men have directed the UConn baseball program and each of those four leaders have played a pivotal role in propelling the Huskies to repeated regional and national success.
---J.O. Christian, head coach for 26 years, from 1936-61, who led UConn's first two College Baseball World Series teams (1957 and 1959).
---Larry Panciera, head coach for 18 years (1962-79), who was part of all five of UConn's World Series appearances, three as head coach (1965, 1972, and 1979) and two as assistant coach (1957 and 1959).
---Andy Baylock, head coach for 24 years (1980-2003), who totaled 556 victories during his head coaching tenure and also served as top assistant for 15 years before replacing Coach Panciera. Coach Baylock has been a member of the UConn athletic staff for the past 55 years.
---Jim Penders '94 (CLAS), '98 MA, head coach for the past 15 seasons (2004-present), who has been associated with UConn baseball for 26 of the past 28 seasons (four as a player, seven as assistant coach, and 15 as head coach). Coach Penders has positioned UConn baseball annually as a nationally-regarded collegiate program.
As fundraising has advanced for the new on-campus athletic complex, donors from each of the various UConn baseball eras are contributing through the UConn baseball Enhancement Fund.
Ed Zajac '57 (CLAS), who played baseball at UConn for J.O. Christian in 1955 and 1956, and later was the longtime head baseball coach at Maloney High School in Meriden, is now in his 85th year and continues to love his Huskies.
"My wife (Patricia Zajac '64 (ED)) and I both graduated from UConn and I've been a UConn men's basketball season ticket holder for 54 years. Christy (J.O.) got me into school in the 1950s and he was very good to me. He taught me about the game of baseball but he really taught me about life. My wife and I have supported UConn baseball for a long time and we want to continue to endorse what Coach Penders is doing up in Storrs. When our team wins, we win so we reached deep in our pockets to show our support."
Randy LaVigne '79 (BUS) is one of the rare two-sport stars at UConn, becoming an All-American baseball outfielder on UConn's 1979 College World Series team under head coach Larry Panciera while also being a four-year starter with the UConn men's basketball team.
"I grew up here in Connecticut listening to UConn basketball on the radio and I knew I wanted to play two sports in college," says LaVigne. "The UConn baseball program has been blessed to have great leaders in charge through every coaching change and my undergraduate experience was great, culminating with a spot in the College Baseball World Series. Now, I am supporting the drive for a new UConn Baseball Stadium to ensure the national-level success realized under Coach Jim Penders continues into the future."
Serving as Chairman of the Baseball Stadium Enhancement Fund is Doug Elliot '82 (BUS), UConn's three-year starting catcher for Head Coach Andy Baylock from 1980-82. Over twenty-five years later, from 2008-11, Doug was able to enjoy following his alma mater as a dad. His son Doug excelled for the Huskies of Jim Penders from 2008-11.
As a senior in 2011, the younger Elliot was a key member (starting catcher in 65 games) of the UConn team that earned an NCAA tournament berth and won the NCAA Regional Tournament at Clemson, SC. Following the season, Doug Elliot was one of 10 UConn standouts selected (Milwaukee Brewers) in the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft.
The father and son Elliot combination also share a unique and exclusive honor as they each earned the Lawrence R. Panciera Team Most Valuable Player (MVP) Award, dad in 1982 and son in 2011.
"This is an exciting time for UConn baseball," says the elder Doug Elliot. "There is so much historical tradition and success with the program and Jim Penders has now attained regular success on the national level. We have not had a sufficient facility to support the on-field performances and now I'm part of a large group of dedicated letter winners who are contributing to our alma mater. The bonds and the life lessons we acquired while in school will last forever and we'd like to help make the future even brighter for UConn baseball."
When Head Coach Jim Penders speaks, the pivotal part of his message to his players are the four pillars of the UConn baseball program:
4---Give back (money, time, re-engage with the program, and give back to the community)
"There's tangible proof of pillars one and two in diplomas, GPAs, rings and trophies," says Coach Penders. "Our impact on the overall growth of our players is more difficult to touch and feel in Pillar Three but Pillar Four it so special when we see a Husky player achieve success in life and give back to his program, his university, or his community."
A firm believer in Coach Penders' pillars as the pathway to true success in life for each member of the UConn baseball program is Patrick Mahoney '08 (CLAS), one of his important early recruits.
Jim Penders recruited Patrick Mahoney to Storrs from Des Moines, Iowa during summer 2005. During the next four varsity seasons, Patrick played every position in the field except center field. He was a starter in 204 of 217 games and co-captain of the 2008 team. He ranks in the career top 10 at UConn in games played, at-bats, runs scored and doubles.
"Coach Penders took a chance on me early in his head coaching tenure and I was able to witness the positive culture he was creating for the players in the program. Now, I'm trying to get people I know to understand the urgency for the new stadium. This is an excellent time for me to get involved with my alma mater because it allows me to show my appreciation for what Coach and UConn have done for me."
Support for UConn baseball and specifically the new stadium project extends well beyond just former Husky players--especially for UConn longtime loyalists.
The Foster family has been a loyal major donor at UConn since the 1940s, developing three separate endowed athletic scholarships through two generations of belief in the Huskies. Bob Foster and his wife Audrey were front and center at UConn games dating back to J.O. Christian in baseball and Hugh Greer in basketball. Bob and Audrey's son Arnie and his wife, Norene Foster '79 (ED), are now heavily involved with support for multiple programs at UConn and the Fosters are all in on the baseball stadium project.
"We believe in the vision of Jim Penders for UConn baseball. Norene and I have developed a great relationship with Coach Penders and his wife, Brooke. The hard work, the passion and the ethics of Jim Penders is something we strongly endorse and the building of the new stadium will allow UConn Baseball to finally have the proper facilities to take their outstanding program to the next level."
Bob Klein '74 (BUS), a longtime Division of Athletics major donor, has specifically targeted the new UConn baseball in his annual personal giving.
"I've been a season ticket holder for men's and women's basketball as well as football for many years, but I also have a special interest in the national level success of UConn baseball under the direction of Jim Penders. The performances of our baseball program are especially outstanding because our current campus facilities don't match up to the goals of a nationally-ranked program. It is time to recognize the efforts of the coaching staff and the players by showing financial support for the new stadium project. We need first-rate facilities and I hope everyone can contribute to our UConn Baseball Stadium Enhancement Fund."
UConn baseball has patiently waited in the on-deck circle for many years. Now is the time to step to the plate and help get the Huskies into their new on-campus home.
For more information on how to contribute to the baseball stadium enhancement fund, please click here.