By Douglas S. Malan
University of Connecticut at Avery Point head coach Roger Bidwell offers no scholarships. His school has no on-campus housing and his team plays in typically harsh New England conditions every spring. Such is life for this Division II junior college program located on the banks of the Thames River near the Long Island Sound in southeastern Connecticut.
Despite the adversity UConn-Avery Point faces, Bidwell has built a regional powerhouse program at his alma mater since he began coaching there in 1982 – all with Connecticut players. After the Pointers surged to a 29-10 regular-season mark, the postseason started in late May with Bidwell earning his milestone 1,000th win at the school behind a no-hitter from ace Doug Domnarsky in the first game of the region tournament.
“That certainly made the game easier to manage,” Bidwell noted wryly a week later.
That win launched another impressive playoff run as the unranked Pointers won the region before knocking off two Top 20 teams in the district tournament to qualify for the Division II JUCO World Series in Ada, Okla., where they finished fourth in the 10-team tournament with several trademark gritty performances. Bidwell’s overall record now stands at 1,007-388-7, with six trips to the College World Series all coming since 1999 and four in the past six years.
“I never thought I’d be here this long,” said Bidwell, who also serves as UConn-Avery Point’s athletic director overseeing men’s and women’s basketball. “When you’re young you think everything is a stepping stone. I’ve had a few opportunities to leave, but the timing wasn’t right. I realized it’s OK to create a niche for myself and stay there.”
Bidwell played at UConn-Avery Point in the 1970s for George Greer, the long-time Davidson University and Wake Forest University coach who’s now a minor league coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. Bidwell then played Division I baseball at UConn and served as a grad assistant there before replacing Greer at UConn-Avery Point.
All UConn-Avery Point athletics are non-scholarship and its young basketball programs play at the Division III level, but the baseball team plays Division II against scholarship schools.
“I wanted our players to play against better competition. It’s as simple as that,” Bidwell said. “I know what players need to get better, and players know that this is a stepping stone.”
In 34 seasons, Bidwell has sent 170 players to four-year programs with 34 of them going to the professional ranks and three to the major leagues – current Detroit Tigers outfielder Rajai Davis; retired infielder John McDonald, who played with eight teams in his 16-year MLB career; and retired pitcher Pete Walker, who played with four teams in eight years and currently serves as pitching coach for the Toronto Blue Jays.
“I look for players who can become four-year players or pro players and just need more time to develop,” Bidwell said. “The roster changes each year and I think that’s why this is the toughest level to coach at. It takes a lot of patience.”
His career is filled with memorable victories, including Jason Drobiak’s walk-off home run in the 1999 district championship to earn the school’s first College World Series berth; the 2010 national runner-up finish after Tyler McIntyre’s walk-off, 14th-inning home run off Western Oklahoma State’s fireballer Andrelton Simmons, now the Atlanta Braves’ shortstop; and, of course, Domnarsky’s no-hitter in the 4-0 win over the Community College of Rhode Island for victory No. 1,000.
But the relationships Bidwell has with current and former players mean the most.
“They keep me going and keep me motivated,” he said. “When you make a difference with people it’s a great motivator, and at this level you really make a difference in people’s lives. They’re all part of the family, and that helps the program stay strong.”