The UConn baseball team, currently in the midst of an up-and-down 2016 campaign, will graduate seven seniors when they finish the season in late spring. While not all of the seniors have been with UConn for four years, the graduating class as a whole has made valuable contributions to the program.
Additionally, this will likely be the final season at UConn for junior starting pitcher Anthony Kay, who has grown into a highly-ranked MLB prospect during his time as a Husky.
He was projected by many publications as a late first round pick entering the season, and his impressive performance this year may have raised his stock even higher.
“[Kay] is a talented young guy,” said UConn head coach Jim Penders in a phone interview. “He was undervalued coming out of high school by professional organizations … we thought he was a much better prospect.”
Kay began his career during the 2014 season, making 18 appearances as both a starter and a reliever. He finished the year with a 3.49 ERA in 67 innings, including a 1.57 ERA out of the bullpen.
Last season, Kay stepped permanently into the starting rotation as the Saturday starter behind staff ace Carson Cross, creating a fearsome pair of weekend arms. Kay finished 8-6 with a 2.07 ERA in 14 starts while learning under Cross, who finished with a 2.29 ERA and compiled a 10-2 record of his own.
“Carson Cross has taught me so much about the game...He never had the best stuff and he knew that but he was going to dominate you with what he had and that’s what I loved about watching him pitch,” Kay said.
Taking over as the No. 1 starter this season, Kay has been excellent again. He currently has a 2.68 ERA while striking out 76 batters over 77.1 innings. Opposing hitters are hitting just .211.
His continued career development has led to a much-needed anchor on the mound for the Huskies, who compete in an American Athletic Conference packed to the brim with quality pitching.
“The coaches here at UConn have always believed in me no matter what and that’s what has helped me get confidence throughout my career here,” Kay said.
Penders has seen Kay’s improvement as a pitcher first hand.
“He throws harder, and deeper into games,” Penders said. “His control gets better as he gets deeper into games.”
Kay is not the only one-of-a-kind player to have put on a UConn uniform over the past couple years. Seven other seniors -Connor Buckley, Bryan Daniello, Nico Darras, Joe DeRoche-Duffin, Bobby Melley, Jack Sundberg and Devin Over - will all be playing their final games as Huskies at the end of May.
Melley and Sundberg, this season’s co-captains, have been with the team since 2013.
In his freshman year, Melley was already turning heads. He batted .283 in 240 at-bats, striking out only 31 times and walking 25. In the Big East Championship, he went 4-for-15, as well as recording seven hits in 14 at-bats in NCAA Regional action.
Over the next two years, he would sustain a batting average over .300 and lead The American in several categories, including batting average and on-base percentage.
Now, as a senior, he leads the entirety of college baseball in hits among active players, as well as boasting a .283 batting average and 38 RBI.
The Barnstable, Massachusetts native passed up a lucrative opportunity to play in the Cape Cod League to work countless hours lifting weights and perfecting his craft in Storrs.
“Melley is a guy who came to us and sacrificed more lucrative opportunities from a scholarship standpoint,” Penders said. “He really wanted to be a Husky.”
His co-captain, Sundberg, did not experience the same level of early success as his teammate. In his freshman season, he started only 14 games and batted .188.
“He came to one of our camps [in high school], and we didn’t think he was good enough. Then we saw him in the summer and said, ‘Woah,’” Penders said.
As the months progressed and he worked harder and harder, his success level began to rise. In 2014, he led the team with 27 stolen bases and 24 walks. In 2015, he solidified his position as UConn’s prime leadoff man, boasting a .412 on-base percentage, a conference-best 33 steals and a team-best 47 walks.
This year, he once again leads the team in stolen bases with 14 and has scored a team-high 37 runs while committing only two errors in the field for a .980 fielding percentage.
The rest of the seniors, while less decorated than their captains, play roles that are just as important.
From the stark power of DeRoche-Duffin, to the quiet consistency of Daniello, to the backend bullpen importance of Darras and Over, to the bench prowess of Buckley, the UConn baseball team is composed of not only good players, but good citizens and students.
“Bryan Daniello is a guy with tremendous energy. He’s a real positive person… refreshingly youthful in his exuberance,” Penders said.
Any time the team participates in a community service event, Penders said, Daniello is the first one to volunteer.
Players like Darras, Over and Buckley, some of whom haven’t been at UConn for all four years, still play a big role in the sparking reputation of the program. Penders said that the three of them are outstanding both in the classroom and in the community.
When asked about the most outstanding thing about each of his seniors, Penders didn’t talk about how some of them were part of the team that won the last true Big East Championship in 2013. He didn’t talk about their personal records, or their national accomplishments. Rather, he kept going back to the same comment; that they are tremendous human beings both on and off the field.
“It’s been a treat watching them develop, not just as baseball players, but as people, as leaders,” Penders said. “For me, the greatest enjoyment has been not to see them hit the curveball consistently, but to see them emerge as confident young men.”