This week in Coaches’ Corner we sit down with University of Connecticut head baseball coach Jim Penders. Coach Penders is going into his ninth season with the Huskies and has guided them to two consecutive NCAA regional births, including a Super Regional appearance in 2011. That 2011 team had 10 players drafted, including three players in the top two rounds… Yes, 10 draft guys on one team! That doesn’t happen very often.
We appreciate Coach Penders stopping by for this insightful look into: what he looks for when recruiting, the hardest adjustment for freshman to make, what it means to be a good teammate, his advice to ballplayers that want to get better, and more.
Before we start, here is a quote from the interview that should probably make it onto your wall!
“You’re either getting better or worse every second of the day. It’s like the Dow Jones that’s never staying the same any day.” — UConn Baseball Head Coach Jim Penders
What advice would you give high school players looking to play at Connecticut?
Play. Compete! Don’t showcase. Get attention by winning championships. Make your All-Conference, All-Region, All-Section, or All-State team in high school. Don’t try to get attention just by going to a showcase and blowing 90 on a gun. We make a lot of mistakes on guys who may blow 90 on a gun for 15 pitches. I’m more interested in seeing those guys who compete and win championships. We really encourage guys to play multiple sports; those are the guys with higher ceilings. We like the crossover athleticism from basketball or soccer or football.
How do you find high school players you’re interested in recruiting?
Though we rely on our recruiting relationships and recommendations, we really have to see them play before we even think about recruiting them.
What is the most difficult adjustment for freshmen coming into your program?
I would say the speed of the game. For some freshmen, it’s failing for the first time. Most of them struggle with distractions and focusing now that Mom or Dad is not telling them, “Hey it’s time to do your hitting lessons.” They may have been perceived as hard workers in the past, but now they get to choose how hard they work. They have to figure out how to do it on their own – not just on the baseball field, but in the classroom and when they’re studying. Even socially, they have to decide what are the best choices for them on Thursday night; will they be the last guy to leave the party of the first guy?
What are some things high school players can do to stand out when you’re watching them?
In addition to seeing good play, I want to see them also fail and their reactions to that. I want to see how they respond to making an error, striking out, or getting hit hard. Those reactions are great recruiting opportunities.
How would you describe a winning ballplayer?
A winning player is one who takes his work and preparation extremely seriously, but not himself too seriously. That’s a winner. If a guy can be described as a great teammate, that’s a winning guy. And not just on the field, but in life. These kind of guys have the best chance of being the most successful and effective human beings.
How would you describe a great teammate?
A great teammate is that guy who thinks being a part of the team is more important than his stats or his scholarship. Unfortunately, a selfless player is a rarity these days. You don’t see players who see themselves as part of something greater than they are. That may also look like a guy who enjoys the team’s successes more than his own. It’s difficult to combat that. Case in point, my son came home from his first basketball match the other day and said, “Dad, I was the leading scorer, and I had 2 rebounds and 2 blocks…” I had to say to him, “But did your team win?” When the first thing out of a guy’s mouth is what he did and not what the team did, that’s a problem. Though it’s human nature, he will figure out that how his team does is more important.
What separates good players from great players?
Obviously, you have to have a certain level of talent; however, the guys that are willing to play hurt or give that extra effort when they’re tired, those are the ones that separate themselves. You’re either getting better or worse every second of the day. It’s like the Dow Jones that’s never staying the same any day. The guys that are doing something to get better on the field, in the classroom, and socially everyday are the guys that are going to be successful.
What is one piece of advice you’d give to aspiring ballplayers looking to get better?
Play for championships and you’ll get noticed. The rest will take care of itself. We had a first round pick (George Springer, Astros) who was drafted the same night we beat Clemson in the regional championship. I got to watch him after he found out he was the 11th over all draft pick. When he saw his Mom for the first time, he hugged her and said, “Mom, can you believe it? Can you believe it? We won.” He gets drafted for 1.5 million dollars and the first thing he says is, “We won.” He gets it. He doesn’t say, “I got drafted.” He says, “We won.”