Could UConn’s Elliot Ballpark soon host high school championships, NCAA Regionals?

Photo of David Borges

STORRS — When the UConn baseball team played at Butler University a couple of weeks ago, the Huskies made a point to take a tour inside historic Hinkle Fieldhouse.

As soon as he stepped inside the hallowed arena, head coach Jim Penders shouted out “Hickory!” — a reference to the movie “Hoosiers,” which was filmed inside Hinkle.

For years, Hinkle hosted the Indiana high school basketball championships, providing every schoolboy hoopster in the Hoosier State at least the dream to someday play there.

Penders would like to see UConn’s sparkling Elliot Ballpark become a similar destination for Connecticut’s high school baseball players.

“There’s something to be said for having that iconic venue in the minds of every kid that swings a bat in Connecticut,” Penders said. “The high school basketball players talk about the ‘Road to Mohegan.’ I want the ‘Road to Storrs.’”

And so, there was Penders a couple of weeks ago, just a couple of hours before UConn’s bout with Yale, giving Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) officials a guided tour of Elliot Ballpark.

“We were impressed,” said CIAC Director of Media John Holt, one of four officials who toured the facilities. “Definitely, UConn has a lot of appeal.”

Holt pointed to the Rizza Performance Center and amenities like indoor batting cages, locker rooms for players and umpires, etc., that help make it attractive.

The goal right now is hopefully to host a few state semifinal games over the next few years, though likely not this spring. The state championship finals are a different story. With the CIAC having recently extended its agreement with the Town of Middletown to host the state championship finals at Palmer Field another five years, it’s unlikely those games will be held at Elliot before then.

Other teams and summer leagues have asked to use the new, $40 million facility over the past couple of years. Ultimately, however, the goal is for Elliot to be a special place for Connecticut baseball, where only high school championships and UConn baseball are played.

In fact, the CIAC is also exploring its softball championships to be held at neighboring Burrill Family Field in the near future, as well.

Regionals a possibility?

Of course, high school championships aren’t the only tournament games Penders would like to see hosted by Elliot Ballpark, which will be formally dedicated on Saturday at 12:15 p.m., prior to the Huskies’ 1:05 p.m. game with Xavier.

UConn would love to be one of 16 sites for the NCAA Baseball Regionals this year. At 40-9 overall and 14-1 in the Big East, it might appear the Huskies are a shoo-in to host. Alas, their RPI (No. 38, as of Thursday) would indicate otherwise. The Big East simply isn’t that strong of a baseball conference; UConn’s strength of schedule hovers in the 200s.

The school has put in a bid to host the regionals, but any program in the country can do that. Getting a bid accepted is the hard part.

“It’s not something I spend a lot of time thinking about,” Penders said. “You’re thinking about winning games. You win enough games, I’m assuming we’ll be in the position to be in the discussion about that.”

UConn would just about have to win its final seven regular-season games, then win the Big East tournament, to be in the running to host. And even then, there’s no guarantee.

In fact, the Huskies aren’t even guaranteed an at-large tournament bid yet, though it would take a huge collapse over the next few weeks not to get one.

Essentially, a team needs to be rated as one of the top 16 in the country to host a regional. That’s not always the case, of course. Last year, Old Dominion’s facilities weren’t up to snuff, so it wound up having to play at South Carolina, even as a 1-seed. In fact, the last time UConn, or any Northeast team, hosted a regional was in 2010, when the No. 2-seeded Huskies hosted at Norwich’s Dodd Stadium.

“It’s been a long time,” Penders noted. “It would be nice to get some representation in the Northeast. We’ve got a lot of baseball fans in Connecticut that would love to turn out for that.”

There are other obstacles. The park’s seating capacity is about 1,500, though Penders believes that with the expansive berm down the right-field line, and perhaps the addition of temporary bleachers in left field, Elliot could accommodate upwards of 10,000 fans.

Of course, parking would be an issue. In fact, it already is, even with only a few hundred spectators attending most games.

Ultimately, it’s a long shot for this season. But then, few expected UConn to be 40-9 at this point.

Crawford still highly-rated

The Huskies have run up their remarkable record this season without the services of Reggie Crawford, the dynamic left-handed pitcher/first baseman who underwent Tommy John surgery last fall. Crawford has been in the dugout cheering on his teammates for most games, and he’s still very much on the minds of Major League Baseball teams as the amateur draft approaches in mid-July.

Despite being sidelined all season, Crawford is still seen as a potential late-first round, early-second round pick — or higher.

“I’ve heard mid-first round,” Penders said. “Look, if he’s there, you’ve got to take him. The kid’s a freak. The upside is incalculable.”