Blood, sweat and dirt: The Willy Yahn way

Story and video by Steven Tucker

The sun beats down during a late May afternoon in Clearwater, Fla. In the stands of Bright House Field, spectators seek a shady spot while fanning themselves with a copy of the American Athletic Conference tournament program, stopping momentarily for deep swigs of water.

On the diamond, the UConn third baseman steps into an environment that would be hazardous to a real Husky. Despite the sweltering Florida heat, Willy Yahn dresses in the same attire as he would for a chilly early season game in Storrs: long sleeve Under Armour under a glowing white jersey soon to be soiled by a warm-up web gem.

His cap points to the future of his jersey. A white sweat line runs through the middle of the hook “C” on the center as a symbol of the two years of long practices and weekend series that led him to this day’s game in Florida. The cap is torn though the front and down the center and the condition of the brim reflects the scrapes and bruises that have come along the way. But the hat serves its owner, who has remained loyal to it throughout the past two years.

This sweltering day, Yahn takes his battle-tested cap and places it on top of his hair, which he has pulled back to fit after a full season of growth.

Ready for the tournament match-up against South Florida, Yahn takes the field with a sense of urgency reminiscent of Dustin Pedroia or a young David Eckstein. Even before the first pitch, grass and dirt smear the blue, red-trimmed letters across his chest like the grit of how he plays the game.

His teammates, who recently elected Yahn as a captain for the 2017 season, have grown accustomed to the superstitions that characterize the junior hot corner player.

“It’s weird seeing Willy without a long sleeve whenever we’re doing baseball activities and even when we’re doing lifts, too,” said senior second baseman and co-captain Aaron Hill. “Willy with the long sleeve shirt, Willy with the long hair and the crusty hat, that’s Willy.”

Yahn’s exaggerated  baseball character seems to be a total contradiction of his comparatively small (5-11) physical stature. Yet contradictions have defined his life even before stepping foot on UConn’s J.O. Christian Field.

He grew up in Sharon, a small forested town nestled in the northwest corner of the Nutmeg State.

“I went to a high school with six towns put together and graduated with 85 kids,” Yahn said. “I came to UConn because I wanted to mix it up, and instead of seeing one or two new faces every day, see thousands of new faces every day.”

Yet even with these small town beginnings, Yahn made the most out of his experience at Housatonic Valley Regional High School. He won numerous conference and state awards during four years of varsity baseball, the final two of which he struck out over 200 batters on the mound, while striking out just twice himself en route to hitting .662 as a junior and .590 as a senior.

Yahn found athletic and academic success away from the baseball diamond as well. He started in goal all four years for Housatonic’s soccer team, earned a pair of All-State nods, and graduated with honors. His high-flying act on the pitch has continued in college baseball.

“That was one of the biggest things I learned being where I’m from,” Yahn said. “You have to have fun and make the most of what you have, so I always tried to do that with baseball and other parts of my life.”

Now Yahn has taken that same attitude and applied it to his continued development in a highly regarded NCAA Division I baseball program, and in his studies as a journalism major.

His dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“Willy really loves baseball. That sounds funny because he’s a baseball player, but he can’t get enough of it,” Huskies head coach Jim Penders said. “He has unbelievable drive and determination. I think that’s ultimately why he was selected captain. They see those attributes to him.”

What is visible to opposing teams is Yahn, the man of many superstitions. Dig past the uniform dirt, and you see Yahn, the teammate.

“If you’re down, you go to Willy,” Hill said. “He picks you up. He’s always cracking jokes, just always having a good time.”

Yahn’s positive energy is contagious in the Husky dugout, and undoubtedly the overarching reason he was elected captain.

“He’s the same guy whether we’re up 4-0, down 4-0, or it’s tied 4-4 in the ninth inning,” Penders said. “And our guys recognize that.”

This season, Yahn has the opportunity to flourish as a leader on the diamond. He’ll continue to build on the draft stock he established when he was named a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American.

Penders compared the professional prospects of Willy Yahn to that of Arizona Diamondbacks shortstop Nick Ahmed: a Husky who didn’t truly stand out to Major League scouts until late in his college career, unlike the more flashy talents of former UConn players outfielder George Springer, now with the Houston Astros, and pitcher Anthony Kay, drafted early in 2016 by the New York Mets.

Yahn’s prospects strengthened by competing in the Cape Cod League, which features some of the top college baseball players in the country. He achieved his success there with a broken bone in his hand—a circumstance that would sideline an average ball player. Yahn, however, is anything but average.

He continued to put team before self as he delayed his necessary surgery until the end of Fall Ball in Storrs. Despite the injury he was named a League All-Star.

“Him being there really made a difference, especially for our young guys getting acclimated with the program,” Penders said.

The Huskies won the American Athletic Conference this year. If history serves any precedent, Yahn along with his long sleeves and lucky cap will take the field in Port St. Lucie, Florida on Feb. 17, 2017, ready to take on the River Hawks of UMass Lowell, his best baseball still ahead of him.

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