Published May 28. 2013 4:00AM Updated May 29. 2013 5:31AM
Storrs — About two weeks ago, the odds of UConn playing in the NCAA tournament appeared about as long as lightning hitting the entire baseball team.
Lightning struck Sunday when the Huskies completed their improbable run in the Big East tournament by beating Notre Dame for the championship in Clearwater, Fla. They became the first No. 8 seed to capture the title and earn an automatic NCAA bid.
On Monday, they gathered at the Burton Family Football Complex to watch the NCAA Selection Show, learning they'll face top-seeded and host Virginia Tech (38-20) at 5:30 p.m. on Friday in the opening round of the Blacksburg Regional. It is UConn's third postseason trip in the last four years.
The Huskies (34-26), the fourth seed, will be joined in the double-elimination regional by No. 2 Oklahoma (40-19) and No. 3 Coastal Carolina (37-21). Ex-Waterford great Colin O'Keefe is a member of the Virginia Tech pitching staff, but has appeared in only five games this year.
It's been an emotional rollercoaster for coach Jim Penders, who had major concerns about his team after a 7-3 nonconference loss to Rhode Island on May 14 at Dodd Stadium. It was UConn's sixth straight defeat.
"I'd be lying if I said two weeks ago I saw this coming," Penders said. "I was as down as I've ever been as our coach. Almost all of our teams since I've been the head coach have gotten better in May … and this year I couldn't say that. I let the team know that."
On the way to a regular-season ending series at George Mason, Penders had some serious heart-to-heart talks with individual players during the nine-hour bus ride to Fairfax, Va.
It wound up being a significant turning point.
The Huskies regained their edge, won two of three in the series, and gained some momentum heading into the Big East tournament.
"We had a lot of good conversations about accountability and what it means to be a UConn Husky, and what mental toughness really is," Penders said. "I think they knew that we're not checking out of anything and that we still had an opportunity to do something special."
The message got through to the players, according to redshirt sophomore David Mahoney, a former Eastern Connecticut Conference star at Bacon Academy.
"He kind of just stressed the fact that we don't have to end the season like this," Mahoney said. "Big East play didn't go as we wanted it to. We just had to put all that stuff in the past and find the confidence in ourselves."
UConn, which entered the tournament with a 9-15 league record, responded, knocking off Louisville (in 12 innings), South Florida and Rutgers, all by one run, and then completed the sweep with a decisive 8-1 win over Notre Dame. The Huskies went 1-11 against those four teams during the regular season.
Mahoney was one of many heroes during the run. As a reliever, he made three appearances, not allowing a run or hit in 5 1/3 innings, and picked up two wins. He was named to the all-tournament team.
"It was unlike anything that I've ever better a part of," he said. "Winning the tournament as an eighth seed was surreal. It is still sinking in. It was a wild five days. … For whatever reason, it just clicked down in Florida. I can't explain it."
Penders described the feeling of winning the program's first Big East championship since 1994 as a "having a healthy baby kind of happy." He's been blown away by the flood of text messages from members of the UConn baseball family.
"It was just a big explosion of love," Penders said.
Now the Huskies are determined to continue their magical ride. Penders has great respect for Virginia Tech. Because of his close relationship with Hokie coach Pete Hughes, the two coaches agreed to never schedule a game against each other.
The NCAA tournament changed that.
"We've got to keep it going somehow," Penders said. "If we play like we played yesterday (against Notre Dame), we'll beat anybody in the country. The trick is trying to play like that again. We've done it now. We finally broke through and did it."
"… Right now, I have to focus on not screwing it up."
At Blacksburg, Va.
Game 1 - Coastal Carolina (37-21) vs. Oklahoma (40-19), 1 p.m.
Game 2 - UConn (40-19) at Virginia Tech (38-20), 5:30 p.m.
Game 3 - Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 1 p.m.
Game 4 - Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 5:30 p.m.
Game 5 - Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 loser, 1 p.m.
Game 6 - Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 5:30 p.m.
Monday, June 3
Game 7 - Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 7 p.m. (if necessary)