Steve Lewis, Athletic Communications
STORRS, Conn. - One of just three players in UConn men's basketball history to be part of two NCAA national championship teams, Tyler Olander is on a different path now and more committed than ever when it comes to perfecting his new craft.
A couple months separate Olander, a 2014 UConn graduate, from reporting to the Toronto Blue Jays' spring training facility in Dunedin, Fla., as he begins his third season in the realm of professional baseball as a pitcher.
After two minor league seasons with the Gulf Coast League Blue Jays and the Bluefield Blue Jays, a pair of Rookie Ball teams in the Toronto organization, the 25-year-old has his sights set on taking the next step this spring when he gets back to work on the mound.
Most recently, Olander played with Bluefield and pitched 21.0 innings in 16 appearances - earning a 17-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio during last summer. The team represents the twin cities of Bluefield, W.Va. and Bluefield, Va.
"It has been a great experience in the Bluefield organization - from management to pitching coaches. All the guys I have met are great to be around," said Olander. "Pitching is hard - it takes a lot of skill and dedication, but I've enjoyed challenging myself."
Had it not originally been for his good friend, neighbor and former longtime head coach of UConn baseball Andy Baylock, the 6-foot-9 lefty's pursuit of baseball may have never gotten off the ground.
Baylock, who currently serves as Director of Football Alumni & Community Affairs at UConn, started working with Olander after his brief stint of playing professional basketball in Spain and Lithuania. After sustaining a broken foot and rethinking his basketball future, it eventually led him to seek Baylock's help.
Despite having not played baseball since eighth grade and beginning his private workouts in a foot cast with Baylock, Olander earned a spot in the Blue Jays organization with some hard work and a determined attitude.
Almost two years ago, Baylock used his baseball connections to get Olander a try-out in front of Pete Walker, a former UConn baseball standout under Baylock, who serves as the pitching coach of the Toronto Blue Jays.
"Everything I give to him, he gives to me right back," said Baylock. "His confidence is rising and he knows better what he has to do to prepare. He's come a long way and continues to mature and gain knowledge. It's been a pleasure working with him."
Olander ended up signing with the organization just months later and spent his first season with the GCL Blue Jays in Dunedin. He made six appearances, including five starts, and pitched 10.1 scoreless innings.
Leading up to spring training this season, the duo has worked together three days a week - usually for 45 minutes to one hour - on physical workouts, mechanical work, pick-off moves, fielding, strategic talk and grips and rotations of the ball.
During his UConn tenure, Olander won an NCAA basketball title in 2011 under legendary head coach Jim Calhoun and in 2014 under current head coach Kevin Ollie - as did teammates Shabazz Napier and Niels Giffey. Switching sports wasn't easy, but he was well-prepared for the opportunity.
"It was always in the back of my mind to play baseball. I try to set the bar high for myself. Getting a chance (in baseball) is great and I hope to take full advantage of it," said Olander.
When it comes to the intangibles - work ethic, dedication, responsibility and focus - nothing could have prepared him better for baseball than his years on the basketball team, according to Baylock.
"This guy has won two NCAA titles; he's not backing down from anything," said Baylock. "Basketball got him ready for this and he's absorbing everything I throw his way."
Olander currently works part-time at the Mansfield Community Center, while living in his hometown just minutes away from the Storrs campus. In April, he reports to Dunedin with other Single A and Rookie Ball players to begin stating his case for the 2018 season.
When asked what it takes to succeed in Division I men's basketball and the minor leagues, the left-hander made several comparisons.
"You need to work and focus on getting better. It takes a strong work ethic and a good amount of focus," said Olander.
Another spring, another opportunity for the two-time NCAA champion. This time, he laces up his cleats instead of his sneakers.