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    Tuesday, May 9, 2008

    My four-year old son, Hank, likes to come to high school baseball games with me to look for what he calls, "new Huskies." He has begun to understand the process of our players graduating, signing pro contracts, or both, and knows that we always need to find guys to replace the "old Huskies", like Larry Day, Tim Norton and Mike Tarsi, etc. He's a little foggy on the details and doesn't quite get why Larry isn't on TV with the Yankees yet, since the Yanks took him in last year's draft, but he grasps the concept that Larry can't wear the blue and white anymore.

    On Monday, Hank put his Sponge Bob Square Pants folding chair in the trunk of the Accord, placed his glove on his lap with his Incrediball in it, climbed into his car seat and sacked out for the hour-long trip to watch a junior right-hander on a school night (extra big treat). After a hot dog at a roadside stand (Daddy knows all the roadside stands), he was ready to help me find some new Huskies.

    Before the first pitch, he turned to me and asked, "Daddy, is Pat Mahoney an old Husky?" I answered that indeed, our senior utility-man was a senior, and he'd be leaving after our season. As he turned away from me to look back through the windscreen on the backstop, Hank said to no one in particular, "I'm going to miss Pat Mahoney."

    I'm going to miss him too. I'm going to miss all four of our seniors. Gordon Stevens, Brad Olt, Matt Karl and Pat Mahoney have all left positive impacts on the program during their stays in Storrs.

    Gordon was a trailblazer of sorts. He was our first scholarship commitment from the Golden State. Since he transferred from Palomar Junior College, he's been joined by four other Californians on our current or future roster, and in two years with us, he's been an exciting sparkplug of a player. He can lay down a bunt at the right time, use his buggy-whip swing to drive a ball into the gap or out of the park, or run one down with his unorthodox choppy steps. I'll also remember his temper. Nobody gets hotter than Gordo when an at-bat doesn't go his way.

     

     

    He's learned to control it, but the fire still burns. I'm sure that fire drove him to do something different and come to school 3,000+ miles from home, and I know it will sustain him and bring him success in his future endeavors. He was a Palomar Comet, and like his juco mascot, he was fast, burned bright, and wasn't here long, but we won't soon forget the glow.

    Brad Olt was only with us for a year and a half. He drove a long and winding road in getting to Storrs, and it was even bumpier after he arrived. Joining a team mid-year last year had to be very difficult, and he had some arduous adjustments to make during his initial semester here after a circuitous route that took him through a year in the working world after high school, two seasons at Avery Point, and a semester at Gateway Community College. To make a long story short, he may have grinded some gears along the way, but he made it to the destination.

    With a busy summer course load, and another fall semester, the guy who was lugging wood floors four years ago while realizing that a bachelor's degree might make lugging less likely, is going to get one from the #1 public school in New England. He also got to play BIG EAST baseball with his brother, Mike. Along the way, he also showed how toughness - old fashioned, mental and physical toughness coupled with a fearlessness of making a play or a mistake for that matter, can sometimes be the most important things in baseball and in life.

    Matt Karl has helped us win many games during his four years. With five more wins this year, he and Pat Mahoney will have won more games in a four-year career than any other Huskies in history. Matt shouldered a big load as a hitter and a pitcher. His odometer has flipped a couple of times and the miles have been hard ones.

    Yet, his back has held out long enough to have provided some great memories in our uniform. I'll remember one of his many saves in particular. His strikeout to close out our win at Notre Dame last year to get us into the BIG EAST Tournament was awesome. Usually, I have to check and see if Matty has a pulse when I hand him the ball to save a game. That calm, quiet confidence has always been one of the reasons I've enjoyed watching him compete. Yet, on that beautiful May Saturday last season, Matt showed some emotion.

    It was great to see him yell, pump his fist and get mobbed by his teammates in South Bend after the umpire punched out the batter for strike three. He has battled through a tough senior year, but the whole body of work is impressive. He always competed when the lights were on and never made excuses when things didn't go his way. I think he is still a mystery to some of his teammates that see him on the airplane or bus reading 2-inch thick books that aren't required for a course, and I think Matty likes it that way.

    Pat Mahoney has a chance to leave the program as the all-time hits leader and he'll leave it better than he found it. He has matured a great deal over the course of the last four years. He has emerged as a more confident, and consistent player, and a better student as well. As our co-captain, he is a dirty-uniform guy that has stayed positive while trying to simultaneously help the rookies find their way. Herding a bunch of kittens isn't easy, but he communicated well, set a good example, and provided veteran leadership that I wasn't sure he was capable of when he arrived in the summer of 2004 fresh from Des Moines just a few weeks after I'd seen him play for the first time.

    He has played seven of the nine positions on the field, played hard at all of them, and played hurt without ever asking out. His grit and resilience will be remembered and sought after as we try to replace PMo with another blue-collar baseball player. His dirty spikes will be hard to fill.

    All four of the "old" Huskies will reach the first goal of the program: to graduate. The second goal of winning a championship just might still be within their reach too. Regardless, the most important third goal of becoming better leaders while they were Huskies has been met by all four. They have given much, and I hope and trust they will continue to lead, and to give back to the program and to their communities (the fourth and final goal).

    None of the four are the most talented baseball players, or students on our roster, but they all possess various kinds of toughness. None of the four were born with silver spoons in their mouths, and each of them has dealt with adversity in earning their diplomas and their roles on our club. Last year, I had the privilege of addressing all of the UConn senior student-athletes at a dinner on the night before graduation. I was reminded of our four seniors in glancing at the closing paragraphs of last year's speech. Here are those lines:

    I want to leave you with a final story. During the Alaskan Gold Rush, pure-bred Siberian huskies were introduced as the best of the best sled dogs. However, in the modern day, they have largely been replaced by mixed breed huskies as the most popular racing breed during the famed Iditarod Sled Dog Race. The mixed breeds are most popular amongst mushers. They may not come from pure-bred royal bloodlines, but they are preferred because of their strength, stamina, speed, tough feet, endurance, good attitude, and most importantly the desire to run.

    During the race the dogs don't always know where they are going. The mushers have the compasses, GPS, and the stars with which to guide their sleds. The huskies just run to the finish line. They run hard and when they get to a fork, they take it and run harder.

    Just like our favorite fight song says, they are symbols of might to the foe. So are you. You are at a fork and you'll find many more on the path. Take them all with strength, stamina, speed, toughness, endurance, and a good attitude. And most importantly, always desire to run.

    To PMo, Matty, Brad, and Gordo, you will be missed. Thanks for helping us get better, and for all the memories. Even though you can't wear the Husky uniform much longer, you will always be real Huskies. Now, mush on!

    - Jim Penders