By Scott Traweek, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State entered the 2012 offseason prepared to transform the team's identity after losing a group of key players to graduation and the MLB Draft. Now, as a new season approaches, the Nittany Lions have emerged confident in the team's progression and are ready to move forward.
"We're excited about this year," said head coach Robbie Wine. "We have a lot to prove. We lost a lot of guys that were impact players for us last year, but we feel like as a team we're that much stronger this year with the experience gained from the players that were underneath them and the new guys we have."
After ending the previous season winning six straight conference series, a combined 22-9 record during the stretch, and falling short in the Big Ten Tournament, Penn State sought to rebuild when it lost three premier offensive starters and three pitchers from the starting rotation.
The players developed an inspired work ethic, showing up for practice motivated to do whatever it took to improve their game. Their efforts made an immediate impression on the coaches, who believe that practicing at game speed will lead to consistency during the season.
"This group here has worked hard," said Wine. "The work ethic, the combination of strength and conditioning, that energy is translating on the field in practices and hopefully it translates into the season."
The Nittany Lions turned their attention to improving the fundamentals, forming the foundation for an offensive and defensive machine.
"Conditioning, hitting, defense, we focused on all of it in the offseason," said Wine. "Teaching the game, moving the runners and playing fundamentally sound baseball because that's what wins [games] early."
Offensively, it involves consistently manufacturing runs by putting runners on base and advancing them through sacrifices and aggressive base running. Defensively, Penn State concentrated on enhancing the basics, such as movement and footwork, to eliminate errors.
The Nittany Lions made two additions to the coaching staff, naming Adam White outfielders coach and a new strength training coach, who was at the South Carolina when it won the College World Series. Both have had a significant impact on the players mentally and physically.
Coach White adjusted the mindset of his players, fostering an intense and competitive environment to keep the defense poised and alert during practice, which would transfer into game situations when complacency could result in a crucial error. White coached the outfielders on their movement and footwork to improve their defensive play.
Conditioning was a primary focus for the players during the offseason and is important to the success of any collegiate program. Penn State's strength training coach improved the team's workout regimen, encouraging the players to push their fitness up another level and the results are apparent.
"Strength, conditioning, we really attacked that area and I see a difference," said Wine. "I saw a difference in [their] energy and the ball just seemed to be jumping off the bats a little bit more."
Depth is a theme throughout the roster as vacant defensive positions were filled after healthy competition between potential starters. The Nittany Lions return senior Luis Montesinos at second base and senior Elliot Searer at shortstop, two veterans solidifying the middle infield.
Penn State boasts a pair of talented catchers, who will alternate sitting behind the plate and at times playing the role of designated hitter. The flexibility at catcher provides coach Wine the opportunity to rest one, while the other starts, keeping them fresh throughout the season.
Though the Nittany Lions lost three starting pitchers last year, including two weekend starters, pitching coach Jason Bell returns a host of pitchers primed to fill the vacancies. Bell and Wine are leaning towards starting redshirt senior Dave Walkling and senior Steven Hill on Friday and Saturday, with sophomore Patton Taylor finishing the weekend on Sunday.
Fortified by a veteran bullpen equipped with sophomore late relieve pitcher and potential closer Ryan Harper, coach Wine is confident in his pitching staff. The focal point for Penn State will be to play sound defense and capitalize on scoring opportunities.
"I feel pretty good about the pitching staff," said Wine. "Now we just play defense and push those runs across when we get an opportunity to."
As is tradition, the Nittany Lions begin the season with a tumultuous road trip, this year featuring 16 away games. The players know that facing challenging out of conference opponents is essential to preparing them for the Big Ten.
"I think it's a good test for us, obviously on the field, but mentally as well," said Searer. "When you come back up to play these schools in the Big Ten after playing schools like Texas A&M or Houston, you have a little bit of confidence and you feel like you can do well up here."
Regardless of the opponent and the location, coach Wine understands the importance of a strong start to the season. The key to earning road wins this early will be small ball: manufacturing runs and eliminating errors.
"It's important to go down there and win those games," said Wine on the road stretch to begin the season. "Get the sacrifice bunts down, move a runner, get a runner in and you're going to win those games early."
Penn State opens the 2013 season with a three game series at East Tennessee State. Game one is slated for Friday at 2:05 p.m.
Nittany Lions Set to Commence 2013 Season
By Scott Traweek, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
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