Student Work

Jun Takeda: The Brain of the UConn Rowing Team

Story and video by Justin Ayer

It’s a cold, brisk, predawn morning at Coventry Lake. The air hits like a thunderbolt. There’s not a soul in sight, except for the singing of hungry birds waking up to be fed. Houses surround the lake; there are no signs of life. At 4:45 a.m., everyone is sound asleep. It is a beautiful sight of nothingness. The water is calm, the air is thick, the trees are still.

That is until the UConn rowing team arrives, ready for another grueling practice.

Jun Takeda, the leading coxswain on the team, is the opposite of this quiet setting. Her job as a coxswain is unlike any of her teammates, whose main tasks are to row.

Her job is to yell.

“STEER RIGHT!” “GET OUT OF THE WAY!” “MOVE!” “PADDLE LADIES, BIG LEGS!” are just some of her calls.

Takeda is not the biggest person on the team, nor is she the tallest. She is 5 feet, and only 100 pounds. A coxswain over 110 pounds is prohibited; otherwise it would be “dead weight” in the boat. She calls herself the brain of the boat, and the extension of the coach. As the person sitting in the back, she steers the boat to make sure it remains on a straight path, yells the instructions, and guides the rowers in hopes of making it to the finish line with a winning time. While off the boat, Jun tells the rowers what they are doing right and wrong, explains how they can improve, and illuminates how they can be stronger and faster in the water.

Intimidating as it may seem to be yelled at in pitch darkness on a cold lake, Takeda’s teammates look past all of that.

“I’m not going to lie — it’s not one of the best experiences you will have,” said Sarah Norman, a senior rower. “As much as it sucks to be out there at 5 a.m., it is really endearing when someone is motivating you in really hard workouts. I feel like I couldn’t be motivated unless Jun was aggressive.”

Norman said being a rower has many tough experiences, most notably the physical pain and all of the different emotions she encounters while racing.

“We are working with four or eight other girls. Even though she’s not rowing, Jun needs to understand how to motivate each person individually but also know how to get our boat to the finish line as quickly as possible,” she said. “So whether a person responds in an aggressive way or needs to hear something endearing- everyone is so different, but as rowers, we need to be able to work together,” Norman said.

Motivation has played a big factor in Takeda’s life. It is not the easiest task in the world to wake up at such a daunting hour and practice for a solid three hours. When Takeda is done practicing, she walks back to the bus, travels 20 minutes to campus, and hits the shower as quickly as a jackrabbit. She gets to her first class at 9 a.m., and grinds it out as a student until 4:45p.m. Immediately after, she proceeds to her next practice, usually a 5 p.m. indoor workout with the rest of her teammates.

“Even though I’m just a coxswain, I still do the same workouts as the other rowers, like the rowing machine and free weight exercises,” Takeda said. “I need to know what the rowers go through on a daily basis, which completely makes sense because they put everything out there every, single day.”

Just as Takeda’s teammates look up to her, Takeda looks up to her teammates. She said they drive her to wake up and go to practice every morning.

“I only get about five hours of sleep a night, which is unfortunate because I love to sleep,” Takeda said. “If it wasn’t for my teammates, I don’t know what I would do.”

Alison Abrams is the head coxswain coach, and Takeda’s right hand person for advice.

Abrams said coxswains have to be mentally strong to know how to push the other rowers, and to make the right calls.

“It goes beyond being the cheerleader and saying, good job you got it, but being able to pick out the technique, the motivation tools, the strategic calls, and making sure that every call is effective as they go through the race,” Abrams said.

In Abrams eyes, the role of the coxswain is about research and reflection in practice.

“In every practice, the coxswains have an opportunity to write down everything that happened, how something didn’t work out so well and what worked to their advantage, and take that research over time to devise a race plan that will be affective against our competitors,” said Abrams.

Given standards for a coxswain, she said Takeda has great engagement techniques with the rowers, a pivotal skill of a coxswain.

“She really gives the other rowers the information that they need to know, and unifies them so they know what they need to do together, rather than eight people doing different things at different times,” Abrams said.

Takeda is a junior, double majoring in communication and sociology, a plan of study she just picked up this year. Last year, she rushed Alpha Kappa Psi, a professional business fraternity noted as the premier developer of principled business leaders. She was also named to the 2015-2016 American Athletic Conference All-Academic Team.

Her love of coxswaining began at the Kent High School in Kent, Connecticut. Originally from Ridgefield, CT, Kent attracted her due to its private, co-ed education, the 1200 square feet of beautiful landscape filled with cross-country trails and iconic scenery, and most importantly, the fact that it was founded on the Housatonic river, a 149-mile river that extends through Western Connecticut all the way up to the western peaks of Massachusetts. Rowing has reigned supreme compared to the other sports the school offers. She decided early in her freshman year that she was going to give coxswaining an attempt, and try out for the team. She hasn’t stopped since.

Although she is involved in so much, her main focus is community service. While in high school, Takeda did a year and a half of service in Harlem for City Year, an AmeriCorps program that aids in developing educational skills and experiences in people in poverty stricken areas.

“Service has always been a huge part of my life but the work I did in Harlem was life-changing,” Takeda said. “I believe that everyone who has the ability to give back should give back. Most of us live in a bubble whether or not we realize it and service puts everything in a completely different perspective. It has made me a more aware and empathetic person.”

Harlem, New York is no place for the faint of heart. Although it has the reputation as a dirty, crime-ridden part of the city, Takeda embraced her time there. While at City Year, she worked with sixth and seventh grade students. Her special students, the “starfish” students, as they are so uniquely called, are the students who Takeda and the rest of the City Year mentors personally connected with. Takeda had two, seventh grade, starfish students who completely changed her view of the world before she went to college.

One starfish student, Kaylah, struggled in school, but was incredibly bright. Her home-life was tough, both parents surrounded by drugs everyday. Kaylah met Takeda in sixth grade, a kind-hearted girl who came from an environment ridden with drama. Her parent’s outlook on education was unimportant compared to the constant euphoria they could receive off of their next heroin injection. Money was tight in her household, and Kaylah was on a path to nowhere if it wasn’t for the engagement of City Year and the impact of Takeda on her life.

“When I met her in sixth grade, she was at a fourth grade reading level and by the time she completed seventh grade, she was above track at the ninth grade reading level. She had a lot of drama all the time, but she was always willing to learn and talk it through,” said Takeda.

Another one of Takeda’s starfish students, Xzvaion, was frustrating for her at first. Like Kaylah, his home-life was on the verge of collapse. His parents never looked out for him, or for any of his two younger siblings. Xzvaion became the second father, having to bathe, feed, and clean up after his siblings on a daily basis. Due to his unstable home, Xzvaion began to struggle socially in school, willing to drop out at any given second. Xzvaion was a quiet kid, and didn’t have any friends. This caused him to act up quite a bit in school, getting angry at himself and lacking any drive to succeed. His lack of willingness in the beginning gave Takeda the hope that she could make a difference, as hard as it may have seemed. She began to have sincere talks with him, telling him how bright he was and how he could be successful if he just changed his mindset.

“You can be great as long as you put all of the negatives aside and do what is best for you,” she told him on a daily basis. Her advice sunk in.

“He had a math quiz pretty late into his seventh grade year and he got a 100 on it, which had never happened before,” Takeda said. “He was so happy. He finally changed his outlook on school and even asked me to go with him to buy binders and pencils for school so he could get more organized. Xzvaion made me really appreciate my education and what I’ve had in my life so far.”

Just as she motivates her City Year students, Takeda has to motivate the rowers.

“In a sense, there is a connection between the two,” Takeda said. “I have always felt confortable in the position of supporting other people.”

Takeda said she wishes she had more time to do everything that she wants to do in college.

“Time is probably the hardest part about my schedule because I want to do so much,” she said.

Takeda said she wants to study abroad before she graduates, and participate in UConn’s Jumpstart, a 300-hour per-year, community service program that aids in helping young children in low-income communities enter kindergarten and get on the right path to succeed educationally.

When she graduates in spring 2018, she plans to apply to Teach For America, a two-year program for recent college graduates to teach and effect change for children’s education in poverty-stricken schools.

Like most of the experiences in Takeda’s life, she didn’t come to UConn right away. A transfer from Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN, she was inspired by her long-time friend, and current UConn rower, Kate Lavrentios.

“Kate is my best friend from high school who went to UConn. She told me it was a great school and that I should definitely row there. So I came up after a year at Macalester, met the coaches, met the team, and absolutely fell in love,” she said.

Takeda added, “I never considered joining or being good enough for a D1 team, but the coaches saw potential in me.”

The UConn rowing team is an NCAA D1 program that competes in the American Athletic Conference. Some of the team’s biggest events include the Head of the Charles, the largest two-day regatta in the world, consisting of 11,000 athletes from all over the world on the Charles River, a river separating Boston and Cambridge, MA. Takeda’s boat finished sixth out of 59 boats in the Women’s Club Four this year. Only the top five athletes on the team could compete in this race.

“It was a lengthy process selecting the top five athletes from our team to represent UConn at this regatta, and they did not disappoint. It was a great performance with great results and I couldn’t be more proud of how they handled various challenges along the way,” said head coach Jennifer Wendry.

Takeda’s biggest challenge is achieving the right mindset before the race.

It’s race day. Nerves are at an all-time high. Takeda wakes up after a well-rested night, knowing her role that morning is of upmost importance. She arrives to the bus, bright and early. It is filled with all of the other rowers.

“What’s funny is that I don’t get nervous until race day,” Takeda said. “When we are traveling to the race, I usually listen to our team Spotify playlist. It’s filled with hip-hop, pump-up artists, like Drake and J-Cole. I really don’t think about the race until right before it starts.”

Takeda said rowing is unlike any other sport.

“Rowing is an interesting sport. You have to work completely in sync,” said Takeda. “There are no plays. You just have to go out and row. It’s very repetitive and many people don’t understand how people find a love in that. In the end, it always comes down to your team.”

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A track star from a family of Thoroughbreds

Story and video by Michelle Kalupski

Cruising around in a silver Toyota Camry through Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, blasting Whitney Houston on the stereo, Taylor Anderson smiles brightly knowing that she earned this car by running her way to a college scholarship.

Anderson always knew that the goal of a college scholarship was attainable since both her parents were athletes.

“There is no way I am failing. I was born an athlete, whether I liked it or not,” Anderson said.

Her parents, Melvin and Lisa Anderson, used bribing as a tool to motivate their children to receive Division 1 college scholarships. If you earned a D1 scholarship, you will get a car, her parents told them.

Junior year of high school was Taylor’s break out year for running track when she got the attention of colleges across the country. As a high school junior, Taylor ran a 11.71 in the 100-meter dash, winning the state championship and breaking the Minnesota state record.

Before the race, her mom told her, “You’ll get a car if you win and get a college scholarship.” In an interview after the race, Taylor told the local newspaper, “I just won a car!” “Bribing works in the family.”

Melvin and Lisa Anderson both attended the University of Minnesota: Melvin played football and ran track, and Lisa ran track. Melvin was drafted after college and played wide receiver for his hometown team, the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1987.

Eventually, the two Gophers had three kids: Isaac (28), Taylor (22) and Elise (20). All three children earned college scholarships and consequently each received a Toyota Camry.

“Both of my parents met at a track practice and they lived on and produced three Division 1 offspring,” Isaac Anderson said.

Isaac earned his car by playing football at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a wide receiver. From 2006-2011 the Badgers were two time Big Ten Champions and played in the Rose Bowl in 2010 and 2011. After college Isaac was an undrafted free agent with the Washington Redskins and spent a season on the practice squad.

“I was the first example for my sisters to continue to listen to our parent’s advice,” Isaac said.

Taylor, senior co-captain at UConn, received a track and field scholarship. Younger sister Elise, received a track and field scholarship to Illinois State University, but recently transferred to UConn to join Taylor. Elise, a junior, has three years of eligibility left in track.

From the start Melvin and Lisa planned to have a family of athletes.

“For us as parents, we are ecstatic to have them both running on the same team. It was great to drop both kids off at the same school,” Melvin said.

Due to their past experience, Melvin and Lisa were able to create a tradition for their children by setting them up to go to the next level in athletics and academics, Melvin said.

“Thoroughbred Andersons was a nickname given to our family by our father Melvin Anderson,” Isaac said.

When the Anderson children were young, their parents stressed the importance of schoolwork.

“Growing up, Taylor, Elise and I were taught athletics and academics were equally important. We were taught to dedicate the same time, effort and intensity to our sport as we did toward our academics,” Isaac said.

Although it may appear like the Andersons are only concerned about athletics, they know there is much more to life than that.

“It’s not about all athletics. I am more worried about them making connections and using their resources at UConn to springboard their careers,” Melvin said.

At UConn, Taylor and Elise both specialize in the 60 meter, 100 meter and 200 meter sprints, just like their mom.

Growing up, Taylor dabbled in many different activities such as dance, basketball, tennis, gymnastics and karate.

“Every other sport was to get ready for track,” Taylor said. “It’s like cross training year-round.”

Taylor’s fate to run track was predestined, since her father is a track coach and both of her parents ran track.

“I kind of came out of the womb running track. I had the big ole’ t-shirt on just running and smiling,” Taylor said.

Her father has coached Taylor and her siblings throughout their careers.

College track coaches did not have a conflict with the family coaching effort.  Melvin founded Track Minnesota Elite, a leading youth track and field program in the United States, that has sent 90 percent of its kids to run in college.

“There is a difference between a parent that just ran track in college and someone that has been coaching for 20 years,” Melvin said.  Some coaches, he said, can kill careers of young athletes.

“In Minnesota and other places you have coaches that are only concerned about something like winning conference, but are not concerned about developing the individual talent to be a collegiate athlete,” Melvin said.

These types of coaches are a big reason why Melvin coached his kids before they got to college.

“My father believed in career killing coaches, so he took it upon himself to coach us in our sports throughout our high school careers. If he could have coached us in college, he would,” Isaac said.

Ultimately, he produced athletes that coaches would appreciate.

“Overall, they appreciated the polished athlete that they got and the polished person that they are,” Melvin said.

Her father’s system paid off for Taylor.

A multi-sport athlete in high school, Taylor was receiving interest from schools such as Dartmouth, Nebraska and William and Mary for basketball after her team won three straight high school basketball championships with her as a point guard.

Essentially, Taylor had to choose between a track scholarship or basketball.

“That was the hardest decision of my life. I could have gone with basketball, but track is where my heart is,” Taylor said.

Taylor’s love of track has lead her to many successes so far in her collegiate career.

She looks up to USA past Olympians, Allyson Felix and Sanya Richard Ross.  Taylor also looks up to former track team member, Trisha-Ann Hawthorne, who taught Taylor how to get off the block quicker.

However, just like her role models, Taylor has created her own unique racing styles and rituals.

Taylor always wears white USA socks for finals and blue USA socks for prelims. She also always wears a navy blue Nike sports bra, with another red Nike sports bra on top and her Nike spandex for prelims and changes to Nike spanx for finals.

Taylor also listens to the same 200 song playlist she created for every race, which includes one of her favorites, “New Level” by A$AP Ferg and Future.

All of these pre-race rituals help Taylor get into a competitive zone. Once Taylor steps on the blocks, she receives an “adrenaline feeling” that gets her mind to say “alright, it’s go time.”

As a junior, that adrenaline helped Taylor achieve her greatest accomplishment at UConn when she ran a personal best of 11.47 in the 100-meter dash to become the 2016 American Athletic Conference outdoor champion last May.

Taylor ran on a broken toe all last season when she won the 2016 AAC title because she didn’t have time to get surgery. She has also pulled both of her hamstrings.

Although this was a major accomplishment, Taylor doesn’t feel like she has achieved anything significant.

“If I make it to Nationals and I place top eight, then I have done something. But until I get there, I haven’t don’t anything.  I just won conference,” Taylor said.

This mindset to never become complacent was instilled by Taylor’s parents, as confirmed by her brother.

“We were taught to stay humble and to not allow success to stop your grind,” Isaac said.

Taylor has some very lofty goals for her senior year and beyond. She hopes to leave UConn with a “bang” this season.

She has her eyes on shattering some school records this year, which would require her to run an 11.2 in the 100 meter and a 22.8 in the 200 meter, dropping .27 in the 100 meter and .9 seconds in the 200 meter.

Additionally, Taylor hopes to defend her outdoor AAC title in May 2017 and to win the indoor title in February 2017.

Taylor also aspires to place in the top eight at the NCAA National Championships in both indoor and outdoor.

She has been trying to up her training level every single year, “but this is just the max out, this is it,” she said.

But, Taylor’s biggest goal has nothing to do with her achievements, but with her health.

“I have to stay injury free, that is my biggest goal, just stay injury free,” Taylor said.

She views her injuries as just little bumps in the road.

“I don’t think injuries have held me back; I think they just postponed some of my training,” Taylor said.

In order to obtain their goals, Taylor and Elise trained every day this summer with brother Isaac, who is a trainer for Maximum Impact training in Minneapolis and is a head strength and conditioning coach for the Blake School Bears in Minnesota.

The system includes flipping and throwing tires and pushing the prowler, a weighted sled for athletic training, to name a few. Also, Isaac introduced his sisters to “fusionectis,” which is a technology-training based tool that identifies an athlete weaknesses and helps to create a plan to correct muscular imbalances.

“This summer was dedicated to improving their weakness and training them how Olympic athletes train,” Isaac said.

Isaac’s training this summer also focused on core stability, proper sprinting and jumping mechanics, and increasing their mechanical efficiency.

“I wanted to compliment what their coaches were already doing and provide them with my expertise on what was missing or where we can progress,” Isaac said.

Athletic success and training are truly a family effort with the Andersons. This really became clear in the summer months.

“It was lots of fun and a good bonding time for our family,” Isaac said. “We made several training videos and memories.” Taylor and Elise were “literally training in our backyard,” Taylor said.

Additionally, in order to keep the girls motivated, their mother would say things such as, “Oh, I don’t see you training, so you must not want to be good,” Taylor said.

For Taylor and Elise, track and field hopefully won’t end after college. Both have their eyes on the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

“That would be the biggest achievement,” Taylor said.

Clive Terrelonge, Associate Head Coach for the UConn track team, was a two-time Olympian for Jamaica in 1992 and 1996, making him a great mentor to help the sisters reach their Olympic dream.

They have several motivational quotes and pictures of the Olympic Rings in each of their different Hilltop Apartment bedrooms in order to remind themselves of their goals.

The Anderson family is Presbyterian Christian, and religion plays a major role in Taylor’s life.

Taylor’s personal favorite quote is from Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

After hard work, Elise knows that, “it’s all in God’s hands from there.”

“I run for God. He blessed me with the ability to run track and be a great athlete,” Taylor said. “God looks out for me while competing. I know he’s protecting me.”

A constant reminder of this is a quote on Taylor’s wall, “With God all things are possible.”

Taylor is a human development and family studies major with a cumulative 2.8 GPA.

“It’s called student-athlete, not athlete-student. I think that is what people are confused about. You didn’t come all the way here to just fail out,” Taylor said.

While Taylor aspires to continue with track for as long as her body allows her to, she knows that one day it will end.

“I want to work with kids for sure because kids are the future.  Who else would you work with?” Taylor said.

Taylor loves giving back and wants to save the world, according to her dad.

“I think that giving back and looking out for others is in our blood,” Melvin said.

Taylor doesn’t anticipate returning to Minnesota, because it is just too cold there. She has her eye on places like North Carolina, Atlanta, and California.

But, first Taylor has her eye on running her way to the NCAAs this year.

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From New Britain slums to the Super Bowl

Story and video by Hector Molina

From quality turf fields and bright lights to a field that’s mostly dirt and needs car headlights for illumination, Tebucky Jones has seen it all when it comes to the gridiron. For a Super Bowl champion who’s used to crowds of 70,000 at Gillette Stadium, the old rusty benches at Hungerford Park in Berlin, CT are a huge change of scenery.

A former NFL safety, who played seven years in the league with three different teams, Jones could have coached anywhere at any level, but decided to come back to coach at his alma matter, New Britain High School.

The 6’2 218 lb. safety grew up in New Britain during a time when gang violence and drug use was at an all-time high.

His mother sold cocaine and other drugs in order to put food on the table.

As a child, Jones bounced from house to house and had to steal doughnuts from the neighboring 7-Eleven since it wasn’t guaranteed he’d have three meals a day.

Today, driving a white Range Rover and owning a mansion with a kitchen as big as the whole first floor of a normal house, Jones has come a long way since his childhood days.

A difficult life made him into the person that he is today, a man who gives so much back to a place where he had so little.

Jones said the challenge of coaching at the high school level prompted him to coach at his alma matter.

He is full of sage advice, based on his own college and NFL playing days. For example, he tells his defensive backs that they can tell what route a receiver is going to run within the first five yards off the line of scrimmage by looking at the receiver’s hips.

Jones calls those 5-yards off the line of scrimmage the drop zone. “Belichick taught me that one,” he says.

These days Jones puts children in the community first, as every summer he holds the Tebucky Jones Youth Football Camp where he shows young players the proper techniques of the game as well as teaching them how to conduct themselves off the field.

Jones once struggled with balancing football and family. At 15, he became a father and had three kids by the age of 19.

Many of his “boys” from the hood told him he should drop his family and focus on football. Jones admits that there was a short period of time when he listened to them because he didn’t know any better.

He had grown up the son of a father who he never saw. It wasn’t till the 15-year old Jones held his first-born 4-week old daughter, Letesha, that he realized he won’t ever leave his family. Once Letesha threw up on her dad’s shirt, he knew his kids meant the world to him.

He was born with God given talent, an All-State athlete in three sports (football, basketball, and track), but what made him different from the other talented guys he played with in the rough neighborhoods and parks of New Britain, is that Tebucky Jones had a plan to live a better life.

An avid horse racing fan who enjoys betting at the casino while enjoying a nice cigar, Jones referred to himself growing up as a “horse with blinders on.” He always focused on what was in front of him and where he wanted to end up. He always made sure to tune out people who could mess with his dream.

With all the success, Jones has remained humble, and that’s what he preaches to his New Britain High School football team.

Lyndon Chambers, a senior linebacker, said having Jones as a coach has helped shape him into a better person.

“He teaches us to always be humble, to always let your actions speak rather than our mouths. He tells us to conduct ourselves as responsible young men, and to always stay on track and don’t let anything get in the way of your focus,” Chambers said.

Jones also wanted a better life for his own kids. He didn’t want them to grow up not knowing where their next meal was going to come from, nor having to stay warm by sticking a lit match in a mayonnaise jar as he was forced to do.

However, there came a point where Jones thought his kids had it too good.

“Whatever system came out they got, Sega, Playstation, Xbox, you name it, they had it,” Jones said, adding his kids were becoming soft and too privileged. He described his kids as “pudding pops — soft and too sweet.” he said. “I had to bring them down to earth a little.”

Even though the family was living in a 14,000 square foot mansion in Farmington. Jones brought them down to the same Boys and Girls Club he went to as a kid growing up in New Britain.

Jones said he wanted his kids see both sides of life and to have friends from all different walks of life.

His son Tebucky Jones Jr., who played college football at UConn before transferring to Fordham for his last two years, had a brief stint on the Tennessee Titans practice squad and is currently an NFL free agent looking for a team.

Jones said his oldest son benefited from the Boys and Girls Club the most out of all his kids.

Tebucky Jr. said by the time he was 13 he was already 5’10. His size led many people to think he was this tough kid but, in reality, he was the complete opposite. Jones Jr. said he wore sweater vests and would get made fun of when he first started going to the Boys and Girls Club.

Jones Jr. also talked about growing up not having his dad in the bleachers during his Pop Warner games, an experience that made him desire to coach high school rather than the pros even though he had plenty of NFL defensive coaching offers.  Jones returned to New Britain as an assistant coach to coach his son Tebucky Jr. during his son’s junior and senior year at New Britain High School.

Even though he was drafted by the pros out of Syracuse University, and went on to win a Super Bowl, own a mansion and drive nice cars, Jones says he doesn’t let any of that define him. The New England Patriots 2001 Super Bowl XXXVI champ never wears his ring, seeing it as just one part of his life.

“When I got drafted, I could see everyone, family and friends, really happy, excited, making a big deal out of, but it wasn’t about the fame for me,” Jones said. He says it was all about his love for football and how it provided him a way out of the slums of New Britain.

Even though Jones has spent a lot of time around the sport, he says he is trying to show his players that there is more to life than just football.

“I’m trying to show them it’s not all about playing football in college and stuff like that, it’s great if you can, but it’s more about going to school and trying to further your education and try to make things better for your family.”

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As the NHL waits, this UConn player sharpens his skates

Story and video by Kevin Bostiga

He saunters out of the pizzeria, big white box in hand. He looks both ways before lazily crossing in front of traffic in no rush. The 6-foot three-inch tall hockey defenseman smiles and laughs as he jokes about what a car not stopping could mean for his career.

His lackadaisical demeanor display, he enters his apartment at the Oaks in Storrs Center. He slides off his jacket to reveal a black futuristic looking athletic shirt with his name on the front in bold red lettering: “Gendron.”

Miles Gendron falls into the leather sectional couch that lines the walls, dropping his pizza on the massive round ottoman. The remaining sunlight shines through the walls of windows of his corner residence. He begins to talk as he shovels the pie in his mouth.

Gendron has occupied the blue line for the UConn Huskies every game this season. Sporting number 10 with a stylish fishbowl facemask, he’s netted two and helped with six more in 18 games. The bigger stat he boasts is a plus 10 or minus rating, which says more about his ability to defend than anything else. Not known to throw his weight around on account of the lack thereof, Gendron relies on his elusiveness and hockey sense to get the job done on the defensive end. Gendron is an offensive minded defenseman, and he knows why.

“My skating is my best attribute as a hockey player,” he said. The 190 pounds draped on his lofty frame looks not unlike a few beanstalks moving as one, but it is with good authority his eloquence on the ice is his best asset. His strength, the very opposite, but he makes up for with his intelligence.

Gendron committed to the University of Connecticut after turning down offers from Sacred Heart University and University of Vermont. Gendron said UConn’s switch to the Hockey East conference was a major factor in his decision.

“What it came down to was, UConn’s a new program,” he said. “I thought we had a chance to build something special, and I think we’re headed in that direction.”

Thanks to the conference switch, UConn’s schedule boasts some of the toughest opponents in college hockey, but college puck is just a stepping-stone to a bigger prize: the National Hockey League.

With NHL scouts at almost every high school game he played, Gendron was drafted by the Ottawa Senators in the third round, 70th overall in the 2014 NHL Draft. It was a night he’ll never forget, filled with feelings he’ll never revisit.

Sitting, waiting, wishing to hear his name get called, he sat through 69 different names across two days with his girlfriend, Jackie. As he turned to her, predicting that the Chicago Blackhawks would take him with the 83rd pick, “from the Rivers School,” rang out on the loudspeaker.

“I stood up immediately, chills went through my body,” Gendron said. “It’s just something that I’ll never feel again.”

It’s with good authority that one could say the Senators pulled the trigger on the right guy that day in 2014. Both players and coaches have had good things to say.

Derek Pratt, captain of the Huskies, and fellow defenseman, said Gendron plays with an unusual, opportune set of attributes.

“With his size, I mean he’s tall, so for being that tall and being able to skate that well, it’s pretty impressive,” Pratt said. “And he just, he knows where to be, he gets in the right areas. So maybe where his strength lacks, he can be in the right areas with his skating.”

Gendron hopes to beef up to 205 pounds as soon as possible, but certainly before he sees ice with a professional organization. Despite his lack of strength, Miles is confident his play will translate well to the NHL.

“I think the NHL is switching to a more face paced speed game, so I think if I’m just using my feet and I don’t slow the game down, I think that benefits me that the games going that way,” he said.

Brendan Buckley, an assistant coach for the Huskies, echoed both Gendron’s and Pratt’s sentiments, saying that Gendron’s skating ability and offensive minded play makes him a great asset.

“That’s something we’ve worked [on] with him, is after we break the puck out, out of our defensive zone, he’s a guy I want to see join, be the second wave of offense,” Buckley said.

After the draft, Gendron would play a year in the British Columbia Hockey League for the Penticton Vees, where the team won the division and league titles. Playing 90 games helped him hone his skills at the defensive end, considering he had only started playing the position two years prior, thanks to his high school coach, Shawn McEachern. A position that Gendron said he could not admit he truly filled until he came to UConn.

After being cut from the U.S. U14 team, Gendron went to a development camp for team Massachusetts, which McEachern was in charge of. McEachern, an NHL veteran of five teams, one of which the Ottawa Senators, was on the ice for tryouts. Miles did not disappoint.

“I toe dragged him when he was playing in the drill,” Gendron said with his usual huge grin. A toe drag is when a player extends his reach on his dominant hand side, and uses the toe of the blade of the stick to drag the puck back, creating space between the puck and the defender. “He came up to me and was like, ‘You gotta come look at my school.’” Showing hesitation, McEachern told him, “You can’t say no without coming to take a look.”

Needless to say, it was a great choice for Gendron that would open a door he had been trying to unlock his whole life, with a key that he never expected.

            Gendron’s attendance at the Rivers School in Weston Mass. helped both him and the school’s program. His freshman year, the team went 8-20. But thanks to recruits like Gendron, by the end of his senior year, the team had won two league championships, and qualified for the playoffs, which they had never done up to that point. During his junior year, McEachern switched him from forward to defense after his team was having trouble breaking the puck out of the defensive zone.

McEachern recalled that Gendron’s play on the powerplay led him to the switch. He also said that Gendron would always beat the first man out of the defensive zone, blowing past the competition, further reinforcing how good and natural a skater Gendron really is.

Players rarely switch positions that late in the game, which left Gendron initially agitated.

“Oh, I was pissed,” Gendron said. However, it ended up being for the best, as Gendron saw time with the puck on his stick a lot more at defense than offense.

After playing six games midway through his junior season, he switched back. His senior year, Gendron occasionally played forward, but still considered himself to be just that. It wasn’t until a USA Development camp when Gendron was again switched to defense and told by camp coaches, “You’re a defenseman.”

Forwards play up in the play, trying to put the puck in the net, or forecheck, badgering the opponent while on defense. Defense serves a more surveying role, hanging on the blue line, waiting patiently to keep the puck in the zone, and to be there to meet the opposition’s rush. Gendron described the different positions in terms of how both positions play in the offensive zone, a peculiar testament to his thoughts and play on the ice.

Born in Oakville, Ontario, to Charlie Gendron and Dawn Caroll, Miles Gendron moved to Shrewsbury, Mass. on his fifth birthday, the same year he picked up a hockey stick. Playing up an age group since his start because of natural ability, he was on three elite teams through his youth career, including the Minutemen Flames, the South Shore Kings, and the Boston Mission. Gendron said he was just about the best player on the team until he played for the Mission, where he played with the likes of Jack Eichel now of the Buffalo Sabres, and Ryan Donato of the Boston Bruins.

“I think I’d be better if my neighborhood played hockey,” Gendron said. “We didn’t even play street hockey.”

A multi-sport athlete until high school, Gendron was not quite your live for hockey type kid. He could swing a bat just as well, if not better than he could swing a hockey stick.

“I played ball in the spring and summer,” Gendron said. “Didn’t even touch the ice.”

The time off does not seem to have hindered his game, nor did it diminish his infatuation with the game. His teammates and coaches agree, he’s someone they like having on his team. And with the Ottawa Senators calling Gendron on a weekly basis, which hasn’t happened before, his qualities are shining more than ever, on and off the ice.

Derek Pratt said his reliability is constant, all the while keeping it light as can be.

“In terms of keeping it loose, he’ll joke around when maybe it’s a serious time, but he’s always focused,” Pratt said. “[He’s] someone you like to have on your team; someone you can rely on.”

Buckley again reiterated Pratt’s thoughts, saying that with experience, Gendron’s work ethic has made him a confident player on the ice.

“I think he’s a guy who’s pretty confident in his game right now, he’s positive,” Buckley said. “I never see him, kind of, yelling at other teammates, and I think he goes out there and works hard, and he wants to win. [He] shows by example.”

Buckley continued, saying that Gendron is just a pleasure to have on his team.

“Well, he’s fun to coach because you can tell he enjoys hockey,” Buckley said. “When we go to practice, a lot of times he’s got a smile on his face, which is fun. You have to enjoy it… He enjoys the process.”


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A former gymnast takes to the diving board

Story and video by Brandon Martinez

With grace and poise, Monica Marcello uses the momentum of the board to send her hurtling into the air and lands perfectly. The judges are impressed, as they give her a near perfect score. Marcello has been doing this for a long time, nine years to be exact, but she had to give it up before the effects of the sport damaged her body permanently.

Now 20-years-old, Marcello looks back on her days as a gymnast, with both pride and grief, as she stands there on the diving board. With the same grace and poise of the gymnast inside of her, Marcello uses the momentum of the diving board to send her straight up into the air, contorts her body in ways that the average person can’t, and finally hits the water. The splash is not well contained, so she isn’t too proud of her last dive, but she keeps practicing. After all, that’s what the University of Connecticut recruited her for.

Monica Marcello is a diver for the UConn Swimming and Diving team and has been on the team for three years now. She has won numerous awards, both colligate and high school, and has broken some high school records, as well.

Though Marcello excels at diving, it wasn’t her first choice of sport. Marcello’s first love was gymnastics.

When she was three-years-old, Marcello’s parents enrolled her into gymnastics classes, and she was a natural. Marcello had Olympic gymnast status inside of her, as she won competition after competition. However, all the excessive contortion, the running, and jumping took its toll on Marcello’s body.

“When I was in seventh grade, I herniated two discs in my lower back and that took me out for a year,” Marcello said. “The beginning of my freshman year (of high school), I was finally cleared. My back didn’t feel to great, but my spirits were high.”

Even though she was told she would never be able to compete again, Marcello returned with fire in her belly. However, her body could not recover fast enough from the previous injury. Due to Marcello’s premature return to gymnastics, her body broke down on her one more time.

“I returned a little quicker than I should have,” Marcello said. “I tore my ACL the day before the state competition, where I was actually seeded first.”

Marcello was once again sidelined, this time forcing her to give up a chance to add another possible award to her collection. Marcello was still not deterred.  Marcello tried once more to return to her sport, but was welcomed back with a broken ankle.

“That completely took me out of gymnastics.” Marcello said. “I was without a sport, trying to heal my ankle and my knee.”

At 14-years-old, Marcello had to give up the only sport she had ever participated in, and the only sport she ever loved. She wasn’t sure she would be able to do any physical activities again, since the strain of gymnastics put irreversible damage on her body. She also wasn’t sure she even wanted to try another sport, because nothing could ever be the same as gymnastics was to her.

Marcello did not participate in any athletics for in her freshman and sophomore year of high school. She started gaining some weight since this was the first time in her life she had not been active. In order to get back into shape, and get her rehabilitate her back and ACL, Marcello entered physical therapy.

It was there that she would first be advised to try diving.

“ To cope without gymnastics, my physical therapist suggested diving to me,” Marcello said. “I did not want to go into diving because it’s what fat ex-gymnasts do.”

Marcello was hesitant, like a child on her first day of school, when she first started to dive. Her heart still longed for the beams and the vault, but after careful consideration, she decided to try her skills on the diving board. It was a frustrating transition for her, as she moved on from a sport she excelled in for her entire life and on to a sport she knew nothing about.

She hated being the newcomer. Trying to learn and excelling at a new sport was already behind her; she had done that in gymnastics. To take novice lessons, to buy a swimsuit and to be the newest member of a team was an experience, Marcello remembers, but not one she looks back on favorably.

“I didn’t love it,” Marcello said. “My heart was still in gymnastics.”

Even though her heart was lagging behind, Marcello excelled in diving. She received encouragement from family and friends about how well she performed and decided to join the Middletown High School Diving Team.

For two years, Marcello dived for her high school, improving and getting better with each practice, earning All-American honors for the sport.  She didn’t love the sport and it would never replace gymnastics, but she was excelling and she was enjoying it. Marcello caught the eyes of many people who watched her dive, including her coaches, family, friends and teammates. However, the most important person who noticed Marcello, and her diving talent, was the University of Connecticut diving coach, John Bransfield.

Bransfield liked what he saw in Marcello and wanted to further improve her skills. When Marcello committed to UConn for diving and Bransfield learned about her and her background, he was up for the challenge of coaching her.

“I’m sure she has worked just in hard in her gymnastics as she has done with everything else in her life,” Bransfield said. “Whenever someone applies themselves with that intensity, trying to back up and make adjustments can be a little much.”

Bransfield knew that Marcello came up from a unique background, but he treated Marcello like any other diver he has coached. However, he has spent a little extra time with her and teaching her to slow down and let the diving board do most of the work for her, instead of doing the work herself like she did in gymnastics. Bransfield’s experience and dedication to Marcello has paid off, as she has won several meets for UConn. Bransfield said he has enjoyed coaching Marcello and loves watcher her improve even further.

“The most rewarding component for coaching her is watching her light up when she perfects a dive or her form,” Bransfield said. “When she realizes she has done something different, the response that she has to it is like watching a small child that just got a new toy.”

Marcello chose UConn and its diving program over other schools because she felt an intensity from Bransfield that no other coach had. For three years, Marcello has been under Bransfield’s wing and she has left a lasting impression on Bransfield as a coach.

“Monica is one of the hardest workers that I have ever coached, and I’ve coached at five schools and for 20 years,” Bransfield said. “For somebody that driven to be told that they are trying too hard is kind of a paradox and it is a hard pill to swallow.”

In and out of the pool, Marcello works hard. Being a full time student athlete and have to balance class work and your sport can be stressful. In order to deal with that stress, Marcello takes the short drive from campus to her apartment on Red Oak Hill in Wilmington, Connecticut. There, she takes to the oven and stove and dives into cooking, making quinoa, grilled chicken and different salads.

After the smoke from the stove has cleared the kitchen and the dishes have filled the sink, Marcello encloses herself in her room and meditates. With candles lit and soft music faintly in the background, Marcello goes into the tree pose, purging her mind and body from the stress of the day.

“Food is a huge part of my life and making sure I’m taking care of my body,” Marcello said. “Whether it’s cooking, meditation or yoga, I try and do things that will take care of my body mental, physically and spiritually.”

Marcello’s body has been through the ringer in her life, with two herniated discs, a torn ACL and a broken ankle, but she has persevered. A new sport has not only helped rehabilitated her body, but also gave her a new hobby, a new challenge. Marcello has many regrets about gymnastics, but it’s an experience she will hold forever.

Diving has is now apart of her identity, and it tells her tell of perseverance.

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“It’s not disabled, it’s differently abled”

Story and video by Garrett Spahn

On a Friday night in the summer of 2015,  a group of hometown friends  congregated at a fire pit in Jack DiPierro’s backyard, their favorite hangout spot. There they cracked jokes, told stories, and simply enjoyed each others’ company, like they had been doing since elementary school.

To keep the good times going, DiPierro constantly stoked the fire with a seemingly endless and perfectly organized 8-foot wall of cut wood.

But this gathering was different from previous ones; this time the group gathered around a MacBook Pro so it could Skype Jared Grier, who was in Atlanta, GA, at the Shepard Center undergoing rehab and treatment. Grier had fallen out of a tree, fracturing his vertebrae and compressing his spinal chord, leaving him paralyzed. The laptop occupied Grier’s usual chair around the fire; the boys didn’t think it was right to have an empty one in the circle.

“It was always kind of a big thing when we would Skype him,” Sam Evans, a friend of Grier’s recalled of that summer. “The only time we ever really saw him in person was like a week after the incident. He was in rough shape at the time and it was hard to see him like that.

“But when we Skyped him, he was obviously getting a little bit more of himself back each time. His voice would get louder because he could move his chest more, and he could laugh, and would start to laugh again. It was a huge difference each time we Skyped him; it was great to see all the progress.”

Grier has miraculously managed to work his way back to life as a fully independent college student, through lessons he learned working on his farm, training as a devoted track athlete, and using his own self fueled determination.

A few months earlier on May 15, 2015, Grier ended his semester at Worcester Polytechnic Institute after taking final exams, and was looking forward to spending his summer in the quaint setting of Granby, CT tucked away on his farm with his close-knit group of high school friends.

Grier’s semester ended earlier than others,  so he returned to Worcester, MA, for the weekend to spend time with the senior members of his fraternity in their pale yellow frat house before they graduated.

Grier was out throwing a Frisbee with his friends, when he decided to climb a nearby tree, something he says he has always loved to do. When climbing down, Grier missed a branch while trying to transfer limbs, and fell 12 feet to the ground; the fall immediately paralyzed him from the nipples down.

“I didn’t feel anything, but it felt as though the wind was knocked out of me. I was just on the ground, unable to really move any of my body. My arms felt very heavy and I couldn’t move my legs or anything,” Grier recalled.

Grier’s step-mom, Sue Okie, started a blog almost immediately after the accident, to keep friends and family updated on his condition.

“Today everything changed,” she wrote. “Life as we know it will never be the same. We will meet new people, experience new things and see everything from a perspective we never could have imagined. Raw emotion, pain, frustration, exhaustion. These will become an integral part of our lives at a level we could have never imagine,” Okie said in a blog post on May 15.

Initially, Grier spent three weeks at Massachusetts General Hospital near campus. The assessment revealed he had fractured his C6 vertebrae, the 6th lowest in his neck of 7 vertebrae, as well as compressing his spinal chord.  Doctors determined he should be transferred to the Shepard Center, a facility specializing in spinal chord injuries in Atlanta, GA.

While in Georgia, Grier endured multiple surgeries as well as daily physical therapy so he could regain strength as well as nerve function. On only his second day at the Shepard Center, he agreed to participate in an experimental stem cell research study.

“At that time I felt as though I would take whatever chance I could gain anything back, so I accepted the offer,” Grier said. A few weeks later, Grier had 2 million stem cells injected into his spinal chord.

After his surgery, Grier went through what he described as a “boot camp” of intensive physical therapy. It covered everything from physical care and rehabilitation to personal independence, which involved teaching him how to adjust his daily routines so he could get dressed and get in and out of bed on his own. Grier said he was also educated about spinal chord injuries. He learned important stretches that he now does everyday to maintain muscle flexibility.  In the beginning, Shepard Center staff had to do them for him, but he is now able to do them on his own.

Grier has made major improvements since then. His injury classification was deescalated a level, to a C7 vertebrae fracture, essentially meaning the vertebrae he broke is compared to one lower, which causes less damage. Grier has also improved motion in his arms, wrists, and torso.

At the Shepard Center, Grier was trained and taught to do strength exercises. He said he worked to build muscle, so things like transferring himself from his wheel chair to a booth when he goes out to eat, or his wheel chair into his car would be possible for him to do on his own.

When comparing himself before and after the Shepard Center, Grier said, “it’s black and white,” because of the improvements he has made. Gaining back his physical strength has been his biggest accomplishment. When he first came home, he couldn’t get out of the couch at his house, but now he does it multiple times a day with ease, he said.

Grier said his latest and greatest accomplishment was on Oct. 21, when he drove a car on his own, a little over a year after the accident that had left him paralyzed.

“Just one more step to being right back where I was. It’s not disabled, it’s differently abled,” Grier said on a Facebook post after driving.

Grier compared driving again to the liberation of turning 16 when he got his license, having the freedom to go where he wanted whenever he wanted.

Grier drives with hand controls; one hand is fixed to the steering wheel on a tri pin to steer. He rocks a lever back in order to brake and forward in order to accelerate with his other hand.

Grier has returned to his boyhood home, a large farm in a quiet part of Granby, CT where he lives with his father, Jon Grier, stepmother, stepbrother Logan Fry, 5 dogs, 1 horse, 10 mini horses, 3 sheep, 2 Nigerian pygmy goats, a goose, and a coop full of chickens.

The property, hidden far back from the road by a long driveway, blocked by a cattle grate, includes a barn, chicken coop, pastures for horse and goats, a pond, as well as lush woods that surround it.

“One of the things I learned about the environment I grew up in, specifically the fact that I lived on a vast piece of land, was that there was always something that needed to be done,” Grier said. This included mowing the lawn, feeding the animals, stacking hay and doing whatever else was necessary to maintain the land.

As he was growing up, Grier took the hard earned work ethic he learned from his home, and decided to apply it to running. He joined his middle school cross-country team in 8th grade and became hooked on the sport.

His newfound love for running led to him to join his track team at Granby Memorial High School, where Grier truly fell into his niche. Grier won first place at the North Central Connecticut Conference in the 4×100 meter sprint and was 6th in the state in the 4×100 meter sprint as well as the 100-meter sprint. He also broke the high school record for the indoor 300-meter sprint  — the last race he would ever run before his injury.

Eight-year High School Track Coach Bob Casey said Grier was a mediocre miler, the team wasn’t very good, and so Casey had the freedom to assign Grier to sprinting. “Everything kind of came together for him,” Casey said.

“My favorite part of running was the last sprint of each race when you’re neck and neck with someone, pushing as hard as you can to beat them. I soon realized I didn’t have to deal with all the beginning running and could do events that work, just a neck and neck sprint,” Grier said.

Casey believes Grier’s hard work ethic led to his success.

“One of the things was, he established a goal. Because outside of the shot put record, for indoor, the 300-meter record was the oldest record we had. Nobody had broken it. That became his goal. And he worked to achieve that goal, and it was the focus all the way through that last year. Everything he did was with that in mind,” Casey said.

Casey said when he heard about Grier’s injury, he had no idea how to respond.

“I didn’t do anything. I didn’t send him a card, an email, I didn’t donate (to a fund established for him), and I didn’t know what do quite honestly. And it bothered me for a long time.” Casey said.

But one day, he called the family, and after almost a year  from the date of the accident, the coach began planning an alumni track meet, where the proceeds would be donated to the family.

The meet raised around $2,500 and over 50 alumni athletes returned to Granby. Casey said the best part was for Grier to see how the team and community supported his son.

“Here’s a kid who should be going to parties, chasing girls, and drinking beer or doing whatever, and here he is learning how to put on his socks,” Casey said. Casey said he thought reuniting Grier

Casey believes that the lessons Grier learned in track, like setting goals and training to beat the 300-meter record, will benefit him in his recovery, Grier agrees.

He said his rehabilitation at the Shepard Center was all about setting goals. Short term, like gaining the strength to switch from a power wheelchair to a manual chair, which he accomplished, and long-term goals like his won day-to-day independence.

“Having that prior training of working hard and knowing that putting in the effort that will pay off in the long run, allowed me to see that even though that day [of the injury] I could barely lift a few pounds and not even lift my arm above my head because my right tricep wasn’t even there, I knew it would just take time and I needed to work at it,” Grier said.

He said understanding that just because sometimes in one race he wouldn’t achieve his goal, that didn’t mean he wouldn’t be able to in the next race. This has helped his recovery process.

He understands that the world does not slow down for him, even though he is now paralyzed. He uses his farm as a symbol for how time waits for no man.

“Whether or not you do anything, the grass and weeds will continue to grow,” Grier explained. “So no matter what happens, you have to keep up with the time, and understand that everything continues to move forward, whether you are or not,” he said.

After taking a year to live at home and adjust to his new lifestyle, Grier is now back at WPI, taking classes, attending fraternity functions, and continuing to make progress.

Grier said his rehabilitation has granted him the physical and mental strength to reach his goal of independence. He has made great progress with his new strength, like getting himself in and out of bed, getting ready in the morning, and getting in and out of his own car to drive.

“I was surprised at how far along he was,” Casey said. “I didn’t expect him to be able to wheel himself in the wheelchair. He’s really gone quite a ways. Everyday I’m sure there’s something special he has to overcome, but he’s come a long way already.”

Fraternity brother Miles Robinson said seeing Grier’s full independence while he is back at WPI has been “awesome.” Robinson was abroad in Panama when Grier first returned to WPI, so when he returned and saw Grier again, he said it was incredible how far he had progressed from when he was first injured just a year and a half ago.

Grier said his future goals have also changed as a response to his injury. As a mechanical engineer interested in focusing on manufacturing and design, he said he wants to come up with ways to improve life for himself, as well as others in his position by creating new tools that make things more accessible for people who are paralyzed.

Grier is projected to graduate with his mechanical engineering degree in 2019, and would like to start looking into internships to further prepare him for his future, regardless of his injury.

Grier’s life prior to his injury did a lot to mentally prepare him for his new life after his injury. Dating all the way back to his hard work of running on the track and working on the family farm, Grier’s mindset has always been about setting and achieving goals. No matter how daunting his tasks, Grier has always been willing to accept a challenge, and use his powerful internal drive to achieve what he wants, no matter how much the circumstances seem to be against him.

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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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