Written by Chris Jones, Special to UConnHuskies.com
STORRS, Conn. - One quick glance at him on the field and you are given a clear indication of how he plays the game. Whether it is his jersey, consistently caked with dirt, no batting gloves as he digs in, or maybe the long sleeves he sports no matter the temperature. UConn sophomore infielder Willy Yahn is the definition of a gamer and he would have it no other way.
Born William Wallace Yahn, just like the noted 13th-century Scottish warrior portrayed by Mel Gibson in Braveheart, Yahn isn’t fighting for independence but he has produced a mentality of going out on the field and looking to prove himself each and every game.
This mentality has been ingrained in him starting from his youth when his parents, Joanie and Walter, instilled these principles in young Willy’s mind.
“They have taught me a lot about mental toughness,” said Yahn. “My dad is one of the hardest working people that I’ve known. I can’t remember the last time that guy missed a day of work. The kind of work ethic that he has, going to work to take care of the family has rubbed off on me.”
Growing up in Sharon, Conn., Yahn explains that there wasn’t much to do in the small town. For Yahn, jumping into sports was one of the few things to occupy his time.
“You had to work really hard to find something to do,” said Yahn. “I usually was trying to find friends to play basketball or wiffleball with. A lot of the time, the thing to do was going to the field and take ground balls.”
Yahn played not only baseball but played basketball, hockey and was a standout goalie at Housatonic Valley Regional, holding the school record for shutouts with 23.
“I think it helped a lot with mental toughness, getting different perspectives, and different intensities for each sport I played,” said Yahn. “It just helped my overall competitiveness especially to play at this level.”
Yahn’s true love was baseball, a game he came to know and love back in 2003.
“My mom was a huge Yankees fan,” said Yahn. “I remember specifically watching the 03’ World Series when the Yankees lost to the Marlins. I remember watching the Marlins celebrate and crying like a baby. I just wanted the Yankees to win so badly and remember really falling in love with the sport.”
Yahn excelled at Housatonic racking up numerous All-State and All-Conference honors including winning the Berkshire League Steve Reich Pitcher of the Year Award twice. Yahn excelled as both a hitter and a pitcher during his time at Housatonic, a place that holds special meaning to Yahn.
“I loved putting on that jersey every day, it was an honor to play for Housatonic,” said Yahn. “I’m still representing Housatonic to this day. Every single day I went out there and played like it was last game.”
As Yahn excelled out on the field for Housatonic, UConn Head Coach Jim Penders was impressed by Yahn’s makeup.
“The thing that stood out was that he didn’t have batting gloves, he didn’t have chrome on, he let his play do the talking and not the accoutrements that a lot of these players have, said Penders. “He didn’t have any of that and it really stood out.”
As Penders and UConn pursued Willy, UConn wasn’t a hard sell for the kid from Sharon.
“I remember coming to UConn and loving the school, not even with baseball included,” said Yahn. “I loved the baseball program but just loved the campus. Especially the increase in population, the difference from high school was huge. Seven towns put together to form 350 kids at Housatonic, to now coming here and it’s close to 20,000 students. The change was awesome and it helped me develop as a person and meet plenty of new people.”
While making the change to college life, Yahn struggled to make the transition on the field. “Fall last year wasn’t a great one, it was a lot of learning and absorbing information from upperclassman and coaches,” said Yahn. “I can’t thank those seniors and coaches enough for what they were able to do for me.”
With a tough start Yahn began to make small strides heading into the season but not enough to earn significant playing time right away.
“It was a tough experience, but it was something that I’m definitely glad I went through it,” said Yahn. “Learning how the guys carried themselves while watching from the bench, finding ways to contribute whether it’s doing the clipboard or carrying something to the field. Guys see that and appreciate it. You find ways to contribute off the field because that is all you have.”
Yahn’s opportunity finally came against William & Mary on the spring break trip for the Huskies.
“Going into the season we didn’t know what to expect from him, he didn’t have a stellar first semester and he was slated to be a backup guy,” said Penders. “He finally got an opportunity against William & Mary and then he kicked the door in.”
“The game itself was a little frustrating, I started off 0-3, I’m thinking, it can’t happen like this,” said Yahn. “I think getting up there and hitting that home run in my last at-bat that game was just all that hard work and support, I got from the coaches and my teammates, finally paying off in that moment.”
From the moment Yahn tasted success he made sure not to relinquish it. Yahn became a staple in the UConn lineup, winning over his teammates and UConn supporters with his leaping grabs, diving stops and all-out play on the field.
“Gritty, hard-nosed, determined and a hustler, said Penders. “He is dirty once he gets dressed, it’s not for show. That is something that really attracted us to him when we recruited him, he wasn’t a big guy but he played big and drove the ball, had a good arm.”
Yahn ended the season hitting .343 batting average, good for fifth in The American conference in 46 games. He compiled 18 multi-hit games with six doubles, two triples, three home runs and 31 RBIs. He was second team All-Conference and a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American.
Yahn knows the target will be on his back as expectations rise for the sophomore third baseman. Yahn will have to make adjustments as teams look to attack him differently.
“Scouting reports say he is an aggressive player and doesn’t see a lot of pitches, said Penders. “He is starting to work on that and get into deeper counts, I think he does battle well when he gets into the two-strike approach. Teams will start him soft and pitch him backwards hoping he gets out in front and rolls over on something.”
“It’s exciting an opportunity to contribute more this season,” said Yahn. “Been working all winter with everybody just trying to get better. Seeing the other guys going to the Shenk [Shenkman] and to the barn, it pushes you to want to get better. In terms of how they attack me, pitchers are trying to get ahead of you early, so you try to attack early so you aren’t facing deep counts where pitchers are more times than not going to be out of the zone, said Yahn. “Be aggressive, stay within myself and don’t do them any favors by swinging at bad pitches.”
As the 2016 approaches, Yahn isn’t the unknown that he was entering his freshmen campaign, now he is one of the best players on the field. But for Yahn, none of that matters, the process is simpler than that. “Just work hard every day and find a way to get better, said Yahn. “Whether it is mentally or physically, find a way to get better every single day, I’m just going to put my boots on and go get the job done.”