Recently in All-Sports Blog Category
By Julie Bacanskas, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - For two years, Tommy Olczyk captained the Penn State men's hockey team. He wore the "C" for the first Division I game in Greenberg Ice Pavilion, and he wore it again as the Nittany Lions took the ice for their first game inside their new home, Pegula Ice Arena.
This year, however, there is not an extra letter on the front of Olczyk's jersey. He is no longer a captain, as the "C" was given to senior defenseman Patrick Koudys, but the lack of a letter means little to Olczyk. He knows his place on the team and remains one of the Lions' most effective leaders both on and off the ice.
"He, in my mind, is as much of a leader as he's ever been," said head coach Guy Gadowsky. "Part of the thought process of making the change is to have a great example that you don't need a letter to be a very strong leader. I think it's paid dividends. I really think it's created a more inclusive atmosphere in the locker room."
Olczyk's example has had a major effect on the entire team, as others have realized they too can step up and take leadership roles. For instance, Gadowsky has noticed individuals like David Goodwin, Eric Scheid and Taylor Holstrom all speak to the team when necessary. More importantly, when these forwards talk, everyone listens.
The coach believes this increased comfort level to speak up and have a voice on the team may have emerged due to Olczyk's leadership this season. The forward understood the decision to change captains from the moment it was made, especially because he is more aware of team dynamics and the big picture than most having grown up around hockey at the highest levels.
In a way, Olczyk has also benefitted from the change. He is relaxed in his game and is enjoying Penn State hockey more than ever before.
"On the ice and off the ice, this is the most fun I've had playing hockey in a long time and being part of the team," said Olczyk. "I think it was the right decision. I mean, you see what we're doing this year as a team. I think Dice [Koudys] is definitely the guy for the job. He's an animal on the ice, and he's done a great job with our team, especially with the help of Jense [Nate Jensen] and Glener [David Glen], but as far as personally, I still haven't changed anything about the way I play.
"I may be a little more loose and goofy around the locker room now. I'm definitely not as serious as I was, but I think it's for the better. Everything happens for a reason, and like I said, this is the most fun I've had playing hockey in a while."
The fun Olczyk is having can also be attributed to the accomplishments the Lions have experienced in their short time as a Division I program. No one expected this team to perform at a high level this quickly, but Olczyk and his teammates believe in Penn State hockey and believe in what they can achieve together.
That strength and passion for their team has brought them to where they are today.
"I told him [Gadowsky] when I was here on my visit when I look back when I'm done five, ten, fifteen years down the road, I want to be proud of what I personally left behind and what I helped all these guys leave behind," Olczyk said. "When I'm an alumni one day, this team is going to win a national championship. Not saying we're not going to do it soon while I'm here, not saying that at all. I'm just saying it's going to happen when I'm not at this school, that this university's going to win a NCAA hockey championship, and I am going to be ecstatic that I was once a part and helped to start this."
If the Lions continue to play with determination the way they have all season, the team has a chance of reaching the NCAA tournament. In order to do that, the Blue and White have to buckle down and take each game one at a time, starting with Saturday's matchup against No. 15 Vermont at the Wells Fargo Center.
For the third consecutive year, the two teams will go head to head in the College Hockey Faceoff. In last year's game, the Lions blew a two-goal lead, falling to the Catamounts, 5-2. Olczyk and the Lions are not looking back on that game. This Penn State team is too different.
"I think every game at this point of the year is a showdown," said Olczyk. "We want to win every game. We want to give ourselves the best opportunity possible to make the NCAA tournament, and more so probably at this point of the season, every game is crucial. But at the same time, Vermont obviously is having a good year, but we're not going to change the way we play. I'm sure coach has said it, but we don't change our game depending on our opponent. We play Penn State hockey all the time. Come Saturday afternoon, it's just going to be another one of the games playing Penn State hockey."
By Sean Donnelly, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - It's been a big week for the Penn State men's tennis. After knocking off No. 19 Kentucky and No. 20 South Florida at the ITA Kick-Off last weekend, the Nittany Lions moved up 10 spots in the ITA poll, from No. 26 to No. 16.
With the two victories, head coach Jeff Zinn and his squad also clinched a berth to the ITA National Team Indoor Championship on February 13-16 in Chicago, Illinois, hosted by the University of Illinois.
"After this weekend, we really felt the team would move up in the rankings," said head coach Jeff Zinn. "We're ecstatic that we got up to 16 this week. That puts more emphasis on us to keep improving, keep pushing and keep moving up in the rankings, to prove that we are one of the better teams in the country."
After losing the doubles point and first two completed singles matches, the Nittany Lions rallied back from 3-0 to defeat Kentucky on its home court. Penn State proved it has the depth to go deep into matches, winning the bottom four singles positions.
Senior Tomas Hanzlik was at the center of the heroics, overcoming a 3-1 deficit to win five-straight games in the deciding match to defeat Kentucky's Jake Stefanik.
"I knew it was going to be a deciding match," said Hanzlik. "I felt like it was going to come down to me, and I felt confident enough in myself that I would win that match...It's a great boost four us in terms of confidence. We still have to keep working hard and not underestimate anyone, focusing on each and every match."
Aws Laaribi, a sophomore transfer from Wake Forrest, has had a great start to the season. He won both of his matches over the weekend, improving to 7-3 overall.
"To win at their home, especially at Kentucky who already had four matches on their schedule before playing us. It's good to get momentum going for the rest of the season. Our confidence really went up after beating Kentucky, being down three-love," said Laaribi.
It was all the confidence they needed to take down USF, 4-1, clinching their berth to the ITA National Team Indoor Championship for the first time since 2008. For the first time in program history, the Nittany Lions open the season with two straight wins against opponents in the Top 20.
After dropping his first singles match of the season, Junior Leonard Stakhovsky knew it was important to start off on a good note and lead the charge against USF. He didn't disappoint, knocking off USF's Roberto Cid, who is ranked 19th in the ITA poll.
"I didn't really play well in my first match against Kentucky because it was the first match of the season, and the guy was pretty good. I knew it was going to be a tough match. Everyone fought really hard against South Florida. It was a great team effort," said Stakhovsky.
Stakhovsky is excited to bring this past weekend's momentum back to Happy Valley, where the Nittany Lions held a 15-0 record last season.
"I have some friends coming to watch us, so it's just going to give us energy. We have a lot of momentum from last weekend, but I feel like we will be really pumped to continue our winning streak," said Stakhovsky.
Although it was a great weekend for the program moving forward, the team is focused on the upcoming matches. The Nittany Lions face Penn and Temple at home at home this weekend. In two weeks, they will go on the road and battle a talented Virginia Tech team.
"Penn is a good team," said Laaribi. "Even though we just won two games against Top 20 teams, we still have to take this match really seriously. We're really excited about going to Chicago, but we have three matches before then. We just gotta keep going, keep playing and keep our consistency up."
Senior Mike Reilly, one of only two seniors on the squad, was happy with the results of this past weekend, but is focused on the schedule ahead.
"We spent a couple days looking back and celebrating those wins. It feels good going to indoors, but at the end of the day, we've got a lot of matches coming up. We've got three important matchups before we go to Chicago. We're focused on Penn right now," said Reilly. "...Last year, the highest we got was No. 16, so we got a little taste of that ranking," said Reilly. "To start off the year at 16, you know we want to stay there and improve on that. We are getting better every day, and are taking care of business."
The men's tennis team will look to continue its winning ways when they host Penn at 9 a.m. and Temple at 2 p.m. on Sunday in a doubleheader at the Indoor Tennis Center.
Despite the absence of starting forward Brandon Taylor, the Lions competed from start to finish on the defensive end of the floor en route to edging Minnesota, 63-58, on Wednesday evening for their second-straight Big Ten win. Penn State's effort is what has stood out to head coach Patrick Chambers during the two-game winning streak.
"We are playing much harder and much more together," Chambers said. "I think there is a lot more trust out there. And we've started to play smaller. We are a lot faster and quicker out there. We have good speed, so we are getting to shooters and not fouling."
Much like the first six games of the conference season, the Lions put themselves in a good position to win in the latter stages of the Minnesota game. The difference in the outcomes of the games? Penn State made the winning plays Chambers has talked about since the season began in November. The Lions forced Minnesota into two critical turnovers in the final minute and solidified the win with free throws. The team's ever growing confidence in tight situations is beginning to lend itself to positive results.
"Against, Minnesota, we made the plays (down the stretch) to win," said Chambers. "It's good for us to see some winning plays."
Chambers said he is hopeful that Taylor could return on Saturday at Illinois, but he is still day-to-day with a slight knee sprain. Without Taylor on the floor, Penn State will again turn to a host of players for increased roles on both ends of the floor. Wednesday's game illustrated the team's depth and ability to live by the "next man up" mantra. From Devin Foster to Julian Moore, Penn State has received quality minutes from its role players, which has in turn played a huge role in the team's recent success.
"It is showing our depth," Chambers said. "They have to play. They are stepping up, making plays and playing with confidence. I'm letting them play through some mistakes, too. I need to let them do that because they need reps."
Illinois comes into the game after a bye week. Minnesota knocked off Illinois by a score of 79-71 last Saturday in its most recent outing. The Illini have conference wins against Maryland (64-57), at Northwestern (72-67) and against Purdue (66-57).
The Illini's leading scorer Rayvonte Rice (17.2 ppg) has been out for the last six games with a hand injury. Head coach John Groce indicated on Thursday that Rice could play in Saturday's game. Malcolm Hill (14.0) and Kendrick Nunn (11.0) are also averaging double-figures for the Illini. Illinois has scored 70.8 points per game in the last four conference games.
"They play hard. They are really tough. They have a really good young team," Chambers said. "Just like us, they are battling a little bit of the injury bug...They make close to eight threes a game. They rebound the ball really well. They defend. They mix it up. They have a lot of really solid, young talent."
The Nittany Lions and Illini will meet just one time during the regular season. Penn State is 5-13 all-time in games contested at Illinois.
Follow GoPSUsports.com's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony
By Gabrielle Richards, GoPSUsports
Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - If you were to place two boxes of toothpaste next to one another, they would measure about five inches wide. Now, imagine jumping into the air and landing on top of two toothpaste boxes, four feet off the ground; gymnasts do just that every day when they perform their beam routines.
The Penn State's women's gymnastics team has had a pretty successful run on balance beam so far this season. With a teammate falling in the first rotation almost every meet, the next five competitors have had to "stick" their landings.
"Beam is definitely a mentally challenging event," senior all-around competitor Krystal Welsh said. "If you focus too much on falling, you will probably fall."
Beam strategy changes for most of the gymnasts as they transition to collegiate gymnastics. In club gymnastics, you train yourself to not fall off the beam and you are conditioned to think that the quicker you do your routine, the better.
"I remember in club it was considered a 'good day' if you only fell once in a beam routine," sophomore Emma Sibson said. "Now, we train and focus a lot on the mental side of the event."
In practice, the Nittany Lions employ several mental exercises, transitioning them into competition. As the gymnast approaches the beam, she is taught to focus on a singular voice of one of her teammates, not the crowd or the other events performing at the same time.
"It is funny, we cheer the same way at practice as we do in the meets," Welsh said. "It really is a team effort, from start to finish."
This week, Penn State has moved up to No. 9 in the rankings as they head to No. 14 Illinois this weekend.
"For us to be able to approach beam in this way this early in the season will pay dividends for us later," head coach Jeff Thompson said. "They know how important the event is and they work really hard to help each other."
By Anita Nham, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - While other college students attended classes, completed plentiful amounts of homework, and participated in various extracurricular activities, junior Alexis Torres and redshirt senior Nestor Rodriguez competed internationally for Puerto Rico this past fall semester.
"They had a great opportunity to represent their country at the world championship level," said head coach Randy Jepson.
Torres is from Catano, Puerto Rico and Rodríguez is from Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. Rodriguez was part of the Puerto Rican National Team Gymnasium club team before he started to compete for Penn State. When the opportunity came for the two of them to represent their country, by no means could they turn down the chance.
"We were born and raised in Puerto Rico, so we're part of the team there," said Rodriguez. "Puerto Rico is a small country and they don't have many gymnasts compared to the United States or other countries, so we got to do our job to represent Puerto Rico. We got the opportunity, we're good enough, we made the team, and any athletes at this level is going to say, 'Yes.' This is a dream for everyone, as an athlete especially."
Competing for Puerto Rico against other countries in the world was vastly different than competing at the collegiate level.
"It was a great experience," said Torres. "We were mostly practicing whenever. We only competed once and that's it. It's just like a completion, but it's really different than competing here in the college competitions. It was a definitely a change practicing and trying to train for those competitions and then coming here and trying to practice and train for all the competitions because, here, we compete more consecutively and for those competitions, it's like one day, that's it, and then, we don't compete for months or weeks."
Even though the competitions were different, Torres and Rodriguez still bring a special element to the men's gymnastics team.
"We have the experience on top of every one [on the team]," said Rodriguez. "We've already seen people that went to the World Championship - these are world-class athletes in comparison to college athletes, so obviously, we have that experience on top of them, which is helpful for the team."
Coach Jepson adds that Torres and Rodriguez are great components to the team.
"They're really good," said coach Jepson. "They're just solid guys. They're very clean gymnasts in good difficulty and they're just really big pluses for us. It's great to see Néstor. He's had a career that's been kind of marked by injuries, and we just want to make sure that he's healthy this year and goes out with a strong finish. He's a former All-American and is a wonderful guy to have around as is Alexis. He's a light-hearted and a very talented kid. They bring a lot to the table for us."
With only three meets into the season, it is evident that Torres is making an impact on the team. He was named the Big Ten Co-Gymnast of the Week last week after the West Point Open. Torres has earned four individual titles, two in still rings, one in vault, and one in pummel horse, as well as a Big Ten Honor.
"I just competed," said Torres. "I didn't really win anything or a title. It was just something I saw in the paper, but it definitely motivated me. It made me see for myself that I was doing a good job and in that way, it motivated me to keep going and keep doing a good job."
Unfortunately, though Rodriguez was in Puerto Rico, he was unable to compete due to injury.
"I didn't compete personally," said Rodriguez. "I was recovering from a torn Achilles', but either way, it was a great experience for me just to go watch the team and especially other teams compete and see how they get prepared."
Rodriguez is currently a senior and could have graduated last year, but by competing internationally, he was given the ability to compete in one final season for Penn State.
"[It] worked out great for Nestor, too, because he was coming back from injury," said coach Jepson. "He could have graduated [last year], but this way, he gets the collegiate season now and he gets to help our team and it was a great situation, a great fit for us. We're really please that they had the chance to get those experiences."
By Astrid Diaz, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - A dynamic tradition will continue this weekend when Penn State track and field hosts the much anticipated Penn State National meet, which is set to bring in 27 teams from all over the country to one of the loudest, most energetic atmospheres to date.
The meet has a tendency of bringing out the very best in all athletes and it upholds a tradition of record-breaking, crowd-pumping racing.
"This has traditionally been a meet that has teams from all around the east coast, if not from around the country, because they know we have a fast track here and they want to put up some good marks for their National qualifying spots," said head coach John Gondak.
In last year's meet, the Penn State men broke the facility, meet, and university record in the distance medley relay with a time of 9:26.59.
Additionally, fans saw student-athletes shatter their personal records like Robert Cardina in the heptathlon, Rachel Fatherly in the weight throw, Steve Waithe and Brain Leap in the long jump, and Brannon Kidder was the only athlete from any school to run a mile in under four minutes.
By now, the 2015 Nittany Lions are on full speed, fully healthy and with eyes on the prize. This weekend hopes to be the most competitive to date.
"You're getting to the point in the season now where we've been practicing for four weeks since the break and we're getting close to championship time and everyone is going to start to be in that peak shape...that top shape where they can really put on top performances," said Gondak.
With all the excitement going on, however, the Nittany Lions look to stick with their usual plan - come and conquer.
"The indoor track atmosphere is unlike any other," said Gondak. "People come here and look to be the best they can be," said Gondak. "There's really not one specific event [that I'm most excited about]. The good thing about our team is that we're competitive in all of the event areas. There are so many great races this weekend and so many great field events. I'm excited for it all."
The meet takes place over the span of two days because of the size of the competition so fans, which will be gifted over 500 cowbells for their attendance, are in for an entire weekend of excitement.
"This meet is on the larger side so, logistically, we need to put it over two days. On Friday, we have a handful of field events. We do the sprints, the distance medley, and the 5000m [race]. Then Saturday, [we have] all the open races, said Gondak. It allows for simulating what the Conference meet is going to be like where it's a two-day competition."
The excitement kicks off Friday afternoon at 4 p.m. and on Saturday morning at 11 a.m.
By Matt Allibone, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - It was the spring semester of his sophomore year, and Penn State men's basketball forward Alan Wisniewski was facing a dilemma.
He was balancing being a Division I basketball player with the workload that comes with studying industrial engineering, but that wasn't the issue. As a walk-on player, the Sterling Heights, Michigan, native wanted a part-time job to give him some extra money.
Wanting to earn it on his own, he turned to his favorite sandwich shop, Quiznos.
"I was good friends with [the manager], because I used to eat there all the time," Wisniewski said. "I mentioned to him one time, 'I'm not on scholarship I could use the extra money,' He said 'we had a guy quit, you think you could come in for some training before the end of the semester.' That's kind of how it started and he offered me a job."
It may seem like a funny story on the surface, but in reality, it speaks to the type of person that Wisniewski is.
Many players are labeled as "hardworking," but in Wisniewski's case the evidence is right there. Despite being a walk-on and only having a scholarship during the 2013-'14 season, he has shown up everyday the past five years and given the basketball program everything he has while also maintaining his schoolwork and for two years a part-time job.
"Kid's unbelievable," head coach Patrick Chambers said. "His leadership in the locker room, his leadership on the second team. He's totally into Penn State basketball, he believes in the power of attitude. Oh and by the way, he's an engineering major and has a ton of homework and a ton of classes and a ton of labs."
Why has the now fifth-year senior put himself through all that? Well when it comes to Wisniewski, schoolwork has always come first.
Growing up in Michigan, Wisniewski was right in the thick of Wolverine country. When it came time to pick a school however, he was focused on finding a university that gave him the best opportunity to study what he was most interested in, which was engineering.
After considering a number of Big Ten schools, he knew that Penn State was the perfect fit.
"I've always been good at math and science over the years," Wisniewski said. "Growing up those were my strengths in school. I was also interested in business a little bit so I choose industrial engineering, which is kind of a combination of engineering or business. I come from a family of engineers (multiple uncles and his grandfather) as well."
While he played soccer and basketball in high school, college athletics never seemed in the cards until fall of his freshman year when he decided to try out for the Nittany Lions, who were coached by Ed DeChellis at the time.
Standing 6-foot-10, Wisniewski provided Penn State with size that few walk-ons could. Since then, his work ethic and positive attitude have made him both a coach and fan favorite.
In four years (he redshirted the 2010-'11season), Wisniewski has scored 19 points and grabbed 32 rebounds. Still, simply being a part of the program is all that's ever mattered to him.
"I really embrace it," Wisniewski said. "I just try to get the guys better in practice everyday, keep the energy high. I'm usually working with a lot of the younger guys so I'm trying to develop them as players and men and feed off what the coaches are doing."
At the same time, Wisniewski arrived at Penn State solely as a student and his academics are still what drive him. While he is passionate about his major, studying industrial engineering hasn't always been a cakewalk.
Over the past four years, the forward was accustomed to hustling to practice after a long day of class, only to then spend his entire evening with his nose in a book. It wasn't always easy, but it's something he's glad he put himself through.
"Middle of [my college career] I was having sometimes three or four classes a day and spending a couple hours a week doing work," Wisniewski said. "It was really time consuming, I didn't have a lot of free time.
"We have a great academic support group, so we have tutors for any difficult classes you have and they're always there to help you out and always give you the best schedule for what we're doing her with basketball and academics."
And then of course, there was his other talent as a sandwich guru for the popular chain Quiznos. Before the restaurant closed its doors last year, Wisniewski would routinely work 10 hours a week in addition to his other commitments.
The job earned him the nickname "Wiznos," not to mention plenty of visits from his hungry teammates and even Chambers, who brought his family in one night for a meal while his player was working.
"That was one of the more pressure filled situations in my Quiznos career," Wisniewski said. "I had to make a great grilled chicken salad for his wife and that was probably one of the more nerve racking things I've done. She said she enjoyed it so I think it worked out."
Now in his last semester, Wisniewski was able to schedule just nine credits this spring and finally has the chance to relax a bit, though not too much with plenty of basketball still on his plate.
Having accepted a full-time job with the Ford Motor Company, Wisniewski is ready to kick off his engineering career. Until basketball is over, though, he's going to continue to do everything possible to help his teammates.
"Five of the best years of my life, no question about it" Wisniewski said. "Met a lot of great guys, great coaches over the years, built some relationships that will last a lifetime."
"Just an incredible kid, a great ambassador," Chambers said. "He does everything he can for community service, CVC (Coaches Vs. Cancer) to help the program."
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -
It's hard to imagine a better script to start an NFL career than the one former
Nittany Lion standouts Garry Gilliam and Jordan Hill have crafted with the
Hill, a second-year defensive tackle, and Gilliam, a rookie offensive tackle, are batting 1.000 in Super Bowl appearances in their short time in the NFL. One trip to the world's biggest football game is a thrill most athletes never get to take part in, so the Penn State duo is not taking anything for granted as preparations continue for Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Arizona (Sunday at 6:30 p.m. on NBC).
"I'm definitely honored to be part of this opportunity and with such a great team," Gilliam said. "Having a chance to play in the Super Bowl in my first year is obviously a huge thing. There are a lot of players who have never even gotten a chance to play in the Super Bowl, so for me to get a chance in my very first year is huge for me."
For Hill, who was a third round pick of the Seahawks in the 2013 NFL Draft, this experience is something he is getting used to.
"I'm just really blessed to have these opportunities, especially back-to-back," Hill said. "Many guys don't even get a chance to experience everything like this. I'm really grateful for the opportunity. And I'm becoming a little accustomed to this, so I'm going to be expecting this each and every year."
Gilliam, who earned a Penn State degree in advertising/public relations following the 2013 season, earned a spot on the Seahawks roster as an undrafted free agent last May. The Carlisle, Pennsylvania, native played in 14 games this season, including one start. Gilliam was a contributor on the offensive line throughout the season, but his shining moment came in the dramatic NFC Championship Game on Jan. 18.
Trailing 16-0 late in the third quarter against Green Bay, the Seahawks turned the tide in the game with a gadget play on a field goal attempt. Lined up on the left side of the line during the attempt, Gilliam slipped free into the secondary and hauled in a 19-yard touchdown toss from punter Jon Ryan. A tight end at Penn State from 2010-'12, Gilliam is no stranger to catching passes in games, but this was the biggest play in his life.
"Honestly, I'm pretty sure I blacked out for a split second," Gilliam said. "It was crazy. To be put in that situation and have the coaches trust you with that play and opportunity, and then to go make the play was a surreal feeling. It feels like a dream."
A play that Seattle had practiced all week, Gilliam knew it had a good chance of working in the game.
"It worked in practice, and there is no reason why it wasn't going to work in the game," said Gilliam. "We worked on it for a few days, and it worked out in the game."
Gilliam's score kick-started a rally from the defending Super Bowl champs. Seattle out-scored Green Bay 28-6 during the latter stages of the third quarter, fourth quarter and overtime to win in epic fashion. For Gilliam, the scene in CenturyLink Field brought back visions of a special night in Beaver Stadium.
"It rivaled the night at Penn State when we played against Michigan in the four overtime win," Gilliam said. "You are just standing there in awe and saying, 'wow, I can't believe this is happening.' It was just amazing to see the grind all come together and the character of my teammates in that situation...No one thought we were going to win that game in the second half, let alone the fourth quarter. It was huge, and it shows the kind of guys we have on our team."
Hill, who graduated from Penn State with a recreation, tourism and parks management degree in 2013, came on strong in the second half of the regular season. He had a sack in five of Seattle's last six games, including two against San Francisco on Dec. 14. He finished with 19 tackles and 5.5 sacks in 2014.
"Especially during the second half of the year, I just felt more comfortable and able to go out and just play football," Hill said.
A calf injury sidelined Hill following the final regular season game (placed on injured reserve on Jan. 6), but the tenacious defensive tackle has been an active part of Seattle's playoff run.
"We knew it wasn't going to be easy because you rarely ever see a team that wins the Super Bowl and gets back there," Hill said. "It goes to show how much hard work everyone in the organization puts in."
Gilliam and Hill add to Penn State Football's illustrious history of Nittany Lions in the Super Bowl. Penn State has had at least one alumnus in 44 of the 49 Super Bowls, including 18 times in the last 20 years. A total of 105 Nittany Lions have been on Super Bowl rosters.
For two of the most prideful Penn State alums, it means a lot to represent the Blue and White on the biggest stage in sports.
"Penn State is such a great University, and obviously the list of great players who have come out of Penn State is so impressive," said Gilliam. "For me and Jordan to be able to represent Penn State is huge for the University, and both of us are from Harrisburg, so it's big for our hometown. And it just goes to show that if you grind, no matter what circumstances you come through, if you keep your head focused, you can make it to the top."
"It means the world to represent Penn State because Penn State means so much to me," said Hill. "Me being a local guy from Steelton right outside of Harrisburg, I wanted to be a Nittany Lion first before I even thought of wanting to be in the Super Bowl. To continue to have the support means a lot."
Adding to the bond between the two former Nittany Lions is the tie to Central Pennsylvania. Both are proud to be representing the Harrisburg area. By no means was it an easy journey for either player to reach the top level of the sport. Both battled through adversity growing up in tough areas, but you won't find two more humble individuals when it comes to the pride in playing for the folks from their hometowns.
"Especially for the younger kids in the community where we are from, to be able to inspire them and show them that they can do whatever they want if they put their minds to it, that's the main thing I am so happy about making the Super Bowl in my first year," said Gilliam. "You know, I cam from nothing and didn't take the easy route to get to where I'm at now. But if you keep focused and don't let the hurdles get to you, you can make it to wherever you want to go."
The Seahawks and Patriots are in the final stages of a busy week in Arizona. While this is Hill's second-straight trip to the Super Bowl, he said that the experience is unmatched.
"You really can't compare the experience to anything else," Hill said. "It's once in a lifetime. It's just one of those things that you just have to do it to even process what is going on around you."
Follow GoPSUsports.com's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony
By Matt Allibone, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - It was a typical winter evening in State College on Friday, Jan 23. The temperature was in the low 30s, there was snow on the ground, and yet Rob Cooper had one thing on his mind - baseball.
When you're the head coach of a Big Ten baseball team like Penn State, that's the way you have to think.
"It's 70 degrees and sunny in here, man," Cooper said while looking around the team's indoor practice facility at Holuba Hall. "Look if you're not motivated for the first day of team practice, to get the chance to prepare to represent Penn State University, than there's something wrong with you and you shouldn't be here."
While the Nittany Lions have been training individually and in groups all winter, the squad officially kicked off practice on Jan. 23 in preparation for the 2015 campaign. With their first game less than three weeks away, the Lions know there's no time to be wasted.
Luckily for the second-year head coach, his players share the same mindset as him in regards to getting the season going.
"It's just pure excitement right now," junior relief pitcher Jack Anderson said. "We've been putting in a ton of work the whole fall and winter. We're just really excited to come out and see who's going to make a difference."
Both Cooper and the players enter this campaign feeling more comfortable than they did a year ago, the head coach's first season. Although it didn't take long for the Lions to embrace Cooper's upbeat, high-energy approach, both parties have grown now that they have learned what to expect from each other.
Last year, Cooper adapted the mindset that everyone was a newcomer. Yes, he knew who his veterans were, but at the same time he was aware of the transition that every player would have to make and adjusted accordingly.
Now in his second season, Cooper is stressing accountability with his players, especially the returning ones who are expected to mentor the freshmen.
"All of those guys last year were freshmen from the standpoint of not knowing what to expect," Cooper said. "Sometimes that first year can be like drinking water from a fire hose. So now, you've upper classmen who have been through the program for a year. They know that ok, there's a reason why we're doing this today because it's going to get us ready for these kinds of experiences during the season. And they can help educate the younger guys and bring them along."
That being said, Cooper doesn't believe in easy when it comes to training. The coach is passionate about practice and made sure his team's first session last Friday was as close to a real game as possible with an eight-inning scrimmage.
The Nittany Lions kick off their season with a weekend series against Elon on Friday, Feb. 13, and will play 36 of their 49 regular season games this season (73 percent) on the weekend. Because of this, Cooper wants his players to start treating their days off from class as business right now.
"Friday, Saturday and Sundays for us are game days," Cooper said. "We've got to get our pitchers and our team in the habit of playing [those days]. We've got to get our rotation on schedule. So today (Friday) we're going to intra-squad. It's going to take up a lot of our time."
From a player standpoint, the Nittany Lions are determined to show how much they've improved from last season's 18-32 mark. The Blue and White showed plenty of promise in 2014, winning 10 of 11 games between March 17 and April 5.
Now, the Lions are looking to show they can win on a consistent basis. While the team graduated a number of seniors, they also return key players like Anderson, junior outfielder and top of the order threat James Coates, sluggers in outfielder Greg Guers and corner infielder J.J. White and promising sophomore shortstop Jim Haley.
"We have a great squad this year, we should win games," Coates said. "There's no doubt about it, we have no excuse not to. Great facilities, great coaches, we have everything we need to succeed. If we just believe in ourselves and play a faceless opponent we should come out on top."
Coates and his teammates know that becoming a top-tier team is a process, but that doesn't mean they're content with where they're currently at. A college baseball career only lasts so long, and the Nittany Lions want to make it count while it lasts.
"We talk about, this is the first year for this team and this is the only time we'll be together, this specific team," Coates said. "Next year we'll get new guys and more guys will leave. Hopefully we'll start something special here."