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UConn alums Ahmed, Oberg visit team at MLB4

@JakeDRill
February 15, 2020

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- A day before the start of this year’s MLB4 Tournament, the UConn baseball team took the field at Salt River Fields for a Thursday afternoon practice. Less than 24 hours earlier, Huskies head coach Jim Penders reached out to two of his former players about coming to

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- A day before the start of this year’s MLB4 Tournament, the UConn baseball team took the field at Salt River Fields for a Thursday afternoon practice.

Less than 24 hours earlier, Huskies head coach Jim Penders reached out to two of his former players about coming to the practice and speaking with his team -- D-backs shortstop Nick Ahmed and Rockies right-hander Scott Oberg. It wasn’t a far trip, as Ahmed and Oberg were already set to be at the complex that day for Spring Training.

So, of course, the former Huskies stopped by to meet the 2020 team. And Ahmed gave a ringing endorsement for UConn’s playing conditions for the weekend.

“Nick Ahmed, the best shortstop in the game in my opinion, says to [redshirt sophomore shortstop] Andy Hague, ‘Hey, this is one of the nicest surfaces you’ll ever play on, it’s one of the nicest surfaces I play on, so enjoy it,’” Penders said. “And you could see Andy’s eyes get a little bigger in the moment there. If Nick’s saying that, then it’s got to be pretty darn good.”

That wasn’t all Ahmed and Oberg shared. While Ahmed spoke before practice and Oberg met with the team afterward, both big leaguers had a similar message for UConn, according to Penders: “Be where your feet are.”

And the Huskies’ coach thought that was sound advice.

“It’s always about what’s next,” Penders said. “I think in our country and, frankly, in our game, it’s, if you’re on the JV team, how do I make the varsity? If I’m on varsity, how do I make all-state? If I’m all-state, how do I get the scholarship? If I got the scholarship, how do I get drafted?”

This weekend, though, UConn is one of three programs solely focused on enjoying its first trip to the MLB4 Tournament, which is in its second year. The tourney hosts four top college teams for a three-day, season-opening slate of games. Michigan and Cal Poly are also here for the first time, while defending national champion Vanderbilt is back for the second straight season.

Penders first heard about the possibility of his team being invited to MLB4 about 11 months ago during a call with Michigan head coach Erik Bakich.

“He said, ‘This might be a reality, would you guys be interested?’” Penders said. “And I said, ‘I’d be a fool not to be.’”

The invitation is a credit to the recent success of the Huskies’ program, which hasn’t always been this strong. In fact, most people would consider UConn a basketball school, considering its achievements from both the men’s and women’s programs over the years.

But the Huskies’ baseball team has reached the NCAA tournament six times since 2010, including three times in the last four seasons. Prior to that, they hadn’t made it since 1994.

UConn is now looking to reach the College World Series this season for the first time since 1979. That journey starts this weekend at MLB4, which the Huskies are appreciative to be part of.

“It’s big time,” Penders said. “It’s big time in every way, and we’re honored to be invited.”

Like UConn, Cal Poly is also playing both Vanderbilt and Michigan, the two schools that reached last year’s College World Series finals, on the season’s opening weekend.

It’s a challenging way to start the year, but that can benefit a team early in the season.

“Especially for the young guys, too, it can really help them get experience and play against a really good team, because the jump from high school to college is huge,” Cal Poly junior right-hander Taylor Dollard said. “That helps those guys out, and it helps everybody else, including myself, to keep getting better, competing against the best to be the best, basically.”

For the cold-weather schools, it doesn’t hurt to have nice baseball weather in mid-February, either.

“It’s great to get off the plane and not have to wear a jacket, gloves and a ski mask,” Penders said.

Jake Rill is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JakeDRill.