By Scott Traweek, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State is making a concerted effort on the diamond to bolster an already formidable defense heading into the 2013 season and the infield has shown promise across the board.
The defense contributed significantly to the Nittany Lions' success in 2012 with a .966 fielding percentage, garnering confidence from the pitching staff and lifting the team to a 15-9 conference record. Nevertheless, the coaching staff saw room for improvement and went to work in the off-season.
"We want to be better defensively than we were last year," said assistant coach Eric Folmar. "It's a lot of repetition, it's making sure guys are in the right place, understanding where they're supposed to go with the baseball, and getting their bodies in the right position to be consistent fielding the ball."
With the return of senior shortstop Elliot Searer and senior second baseman Luis Montesinos, the strength of the infield for Penn State lies up the middle, where it matters most. Both Montesinos and Searer sought to set an example as upperclassmen by working hard to raise their games and coach Folmar is pleased with the results.
"They've both worked on all areas of the game," said Folmar. "From a defensive standpoint, I think they've both gone after it in the fall and made big strides with their footwork around the bag and in all areas."
Having Searer and Montesinos set the tone is crucial for the Nittany Lions moving forward after the loss of a dynamic senior class. Leadership is important to the success of any collegiate athletic program and this year's senior class has risen to the challenge.
"The role from last season to this season changes for me because we lost all those seniors," said Montesinos. "Me, Elliot [Searer] and Steve Snyder, for position players, need to step up as the leaders this year."
"I think what [Searer and Montesinos] have taken more than anything is more of a leadership role," said Folmar. "That's a big part of it. Anytime you have a good team, you have great leadership, and it starts at the top from the seniors working down."
Though the Nittany Lions lost two key position players in first baseman Jordan Steranka and third baseman Joey DeBernardis, a healthy competition has emerged as players continuously improve their performances to capture a starting spot, particularly at third base.
"The guys that are battling at third base to get over there and play, they're coming and working every day to get better," said Folmar. "Right now there are a few guys in the mix in a lot of different places."
Penn State returns sophomore first baseman J.J. White, who started in 32 games his freshman season as a designated hitter and, occasionally, at first base. White is among a host of young players who've show a lot of potential as the coaches search to solidify a starting lineup.
"We have a guy returning at first base that played a lot last year, J.J. White," said Folmar. "We think he's got a chance to be a very good player."
Offensively, the Nittany Lions lost their three top hitters in 2012, including Steranka, DeBernardis and outfielder Sean Deegan, who combined for 31 of the team's 38 home runs.
It was a tough loss, but the coaches never faltered and responded by not only strengthening the defense, but by focusing on 'small ball' instead of the 'long ball.' In other words, instead of relying on homeruns, Penn State will focus on getting batters on base and manufacturing runs.
"We're trying to play a little bit more small ball," said Montesinos on the focus in practice during the off-season. "Get the first guy of the inning on base, move him over and score him."
Consistency, speed and conditioning are vital to a team that manufactures runs to win games. The Nittany Lions have a lot of speed throughout the lineup and have been working tirelessly on their hitting. The first step is to put runners on base followed by smart hitting and base running.
"I think we have some good athletes," said Searer, "some guys that can run, so we've utilized base running in practice and are working on leads. It's a game of inches, so if we can get those speedy guys out there further and further then we want to do that."
That being said, the main focus both offensively and defensively throughout the offseason is simple: practice and progress.
"We're preparing them to be better every day," said Folmar.