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Lions Grow on Diamond in Cuba

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11546264.jpegBy Mike Gilbert, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The baseball team's trip to Cuba produced some great moments for a young team on the field. Coach Rob Cooper's club lost to Cuban powerhouse, Industriales, by a 2-1 score in the first game, which is an impressive feat in itself. Then, the team took home the first victory for a United States team at any level over a Cuban National Series team.

"[This win] is something that [our guys] will be able to talk about for the rest of their lives," said Penn State head coach Rob Cooper.

The first game was played against Industriales, a team considered baseball royalty in Cuba. Cooper called them the "New York Yankees of Cuba," on multiple occasions. Pitchers Taylor Lehman and Nick Distasio tossed four innings each and only allowed five hits combined in that span. The Penn State run came in the seventh inning, when centerfielder Austin Riggins was able to drive in designated hitter Nick Riotto.

"Overall, our guys played hard, they competed, and again, you're playing in a foreign country and to have a game like that, I am really proud of our kids," said Cooper.

After the narrow loss to Industriales, the Blue and White took on defending Cuban National Series champion, Ciego de Avila, and were able to hang tough in that game as well. The game, played in Latin American Stadium, featured Victor Garcia, who pitched for Cuba in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. It ended in a 2-0 defeat for the Nittany Lions, who were able to play a team with professional quality pitching very closely.

Game three of the Baseball Friendship Tournament was where the Lions were able to breakthrough for a victory. Riotto drove in three runs with a triple while Christian Helsel went yard to help defeat Mayabeque 9-3. New Jersey native Justin Hagenman threw three innings for the win. In the top of the second inning, Penn State had 13 batters come to the plate.

After the win, the team spent Thanksgiving learning about the history of Cuban sports. They also scrimmaged Industriales in Latin American Stadium, and pitchers from Industriales threw for the Lions, giving them an opportunity to interact in their own dugout with professional players of Cuba's most successful team.

After the victory over Mayabeque, the Lions fell, 15-2, against Matanzas in front of a raucous crowd, who used horns and sirens in the stands. That game really allowed the players and coaches to experience Cuban baseball up close and personal.

Even though Penn State became the first team to ever beat a Cuban National Series team, and were the first American team to play baseball in Cuba since before the Cold War, Cooper and his team aren't satisfied.

"One of the things I think I tried to express to our guys, is as great as that trip was...it was a memorable thing that you'll have for the rest of your lives... I definitely don't want it to be the highlight of the season so we definitely have to learn some of the things we need to get better on," said Cooper.

The most important thing to Cooper regarding how his team performed on the field was seeing how his players responded to the drastic changes of playing games in a different country.

"If you had to ask me I'd say I learned a lot about our guys baseball wise but just learning more about them as people - you never know what guys are going to do when they're put in that type of position, when they're away form their families when they have zero access to the outside world really, so it was like these guys said, it was just each other. To see some guys open up and some guys handle it was pretty cool and hopefully that could springboard us into being a closer team come springtime."

The experience gained by hanging with professional baseball players for four games will help the young team grow just a little faster. But the way the team competed shows fans that Cooper is building something special in Happy Valley. 

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