The Coleumn: Appreciating those that stuck through tough times 

12-19-2022 Myrtle Beach Bowl FB v Marshall by Izzi Barton UConn Football falls to Marshall University 14-28 at the Myrtle Beach Bowl on Monday, Dec. 19, 2022, at Brooks Stadium at Coastal Carolina University. This was UConn’s first appearance in a bowl game since 2015. They end their season with a 6-7 record.

On March 22, the UConn football team hosted their pro day at the Burton Family Football Complex. Seven NFL hopefuls showcased their talents in front of a handful of scouts with the hopes of hearing their name called in the NFL Draft on the last weekend of April. While each of the seven players ended their collegiate careers with a bowl game appearance — UConn’s first since 2015 — there is one whose story must be told as he prepares for the next level. 

Hailing from Wilmette, Ill., Ian Swenson committed to the Huskies during the end of the Bob Diaco era in 2016 and stayed true to it when Randy Edsall returned to Storrs the following season. UConn went 3-9 in 2017, the year that Swenson used his redshirt, but things went from bad to worse despite ending that season on a five-game losing streak. The Huskies had a historically bad defense in 2018, setting single-season FBS records for the most yards surrendered and the most points allowed.  

Swenson got chucked into the fire, starting five of Connecticut’s 12 games with 41 tackles in a disastrous 1-11 campaign. Despite replacing Defensive Coordinator Billy Crocker with Lou Spanos, the defense minimally improved in 2019. Although UConn picked up an FBS win against the UMass Amherst Minutemen, the team went 2-10 and surrendered 40.5 points per game. Swenson had 40 tackles and a fumble recovery, hinting at a potential breakout season in 2020, but then COVID-19 took it all away. 

A global pandemic did not stop Swenson in 2021 as he recorded 73 tackles with a sack and two pass breakups, but Connecticut experienced another 1-11 campaign where Edsall left after two games. Without a permanent head coach and at least one more year of eligibility, Swenson could have transferred to another institution to improve his chances of making it to the next level of football. 

Instead, he stayed to join the revolution that head coach Jim Mora instilled when he got hired by the university. The results were not apparent as the Huskies started the season 1-4 against top-tier competition, but everything changed after an upset against the Fresno State Bulldogs. Connecticut finished the regular season 5-2, gaining bowl eligibility with a signature upset against the No. 19 Liberty Flames. Swenson himself recorded a career-best 88 tackles and four for a loss while nabbing his first career interception. 

Although his UConn career did not have the perfect ending — he got ejected for targeting in the Myrtle Beach Bowl — Swenson’s tenure in Storrs is an appreciation of sticking with a program through thick and thin. But Swenson is not the only recent former Husky who stayed through the changes as his team climbed up from rock bottom.  

Take a look at the UConn men’s basketball team, which is back in the Sweet 16 for the first time since winning the national title in 2014. Although they are no longer on the roster, both Isaiah Whaley and Tyler Polley experienced and stuck through a handful of changes as the program gradually returned to dominance. 

11/4/2022 FBALL vs. UMass by Sofia Sawchuk, Associate Photo Editor. The UConn football team captures a 27-10 win over rival UMass following a Friday night matchup at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn. on Nov. 4, 2022. UConn freshman running back Victor Rosa (22) ran 87 yards along with obtaining a pair of touchdowns to help the Huskies snatch the victory.

Both Whaley and Polley were part of a recruiting class from former head coach Kevin Ollie that ranked No. 84 in the nation, No. 8 in the American Athletic Conference and worse than every Big East school, according to 247 Sports. Despite their overall ranking, this recruiting class, led by Dan Hurley, set the foundation for success. 

Whaley, a 6-9 forward from Gastonia, North Carolina, chose UConn after making his official visit to the school, choosing the university over the Seton Hall Pirates and East Carolina Pirates. Whaley started 12 games in his freshman season, averaging 2.6 points and 2.2 rebounds with 30 blocks, but started half as many over the next two years of his collegiate career. Part of that had to do with an ankle injury he sustained in his sophomore season, but Whaley stuck to the course to see if he could work his way back into the starting lineup. 

The hard work paid off when the Huskies returned to the Big East, as Whaley thrived in a greater role against different conference foes. Starting all 23 games in 2020-21, Whaley averaged a career-high eight points and recorded 60 blocks as he shared Big East Defensive Player of the Year honors with Posh Alexander. The Wrench used his extra year of eligibility to his advantage, returning as the starter during the 2021-22 campaign while rejecting a career-high 71 shots.  

Ranked as the 168th-best prospect in the 2017 class, Polley chose Storrs over the Tennessee Volunteers and the Dayton Flyers. The 6-9 three-star forward from Florida saw significant minutes early on, starting 47 of 48 games between 2018-19 and 2019-20 before a torn ACL abruptly ended his junior season. His role changed when he returned, but he turned it into a positive by winning the Big East Sixth Man of the Year award and becoming Hurley’s No. 1 option off the bench during his last two seasons. 

Now I understand that the circumstances of both programs are incredibly different. The men’s basketball team has made three straight March Madness appearances for the first time since the 2000s, while the football team went from 1-11 to becoming bowl eligible in a year under Mora’s new culture. While these players had a significant role in the team’s recent successes, I wanted to highlight their resilience and how staying with their respective programs positively benefited their college careers. 

While it is uncertain what the future holds for all three players, the legacies of dedication that Swenson, Whaley and Polley leave behind can serve as a lesson for people who are going through the same experience with their clubs or teams. This is a recognition of those who stuck through tough times, and the rewards they experienced at the end of their careers are attainable by anyone who follows in their footsteps. 

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