By Matt Allibone, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
PARK, Pa.- Watching college kids graduate is nothing new to Rob Cooper.
the Nittany Lions' head coach is in his 11th season at the helm of a
college program, after working as an assistant for more than a decade. In that
time, Cooper, like every college coach, has said goodbye to a different group
of young men every spring.
a process that never gets any easier for him. With Penn State's final home
series of the season this weekend against Rutgers, the old emotions
are already coming back for the skipper.
senior days really hard," Cooper said. "I know number one, how tough it is to
do something your whole life and then you're no longer playing baseball,
something every spring you've gotten ready to do. I'm sensitive to that but I'm
also sensitive to the fact that these guys, although they choose to, have given
up a lot of time and energy and it directly impacts me and my family. So I want
to them go out on a good note."
hand, this current group of eight Nittany Lion seniors may seem like any other
graduating class. At the same time, Cooper will always remember this group
fondly for helping him adjust to Penn State.
accepted the head coaching job at Penn State two years ago after nine seasons
at Wright State, it was clear the Nittany Lions were in a rebuilding phase.
Cooper accepted the challenge from day one, yet it was still nice for the coach to have players who embraced his style.
crop of seniors, which consisted of nine guys, went a long way in helping
Cooper implement the culture the coach wanted at Penn State. But this year's
crew has been just as responsive.
was very welcoming to me when I got the job," Cooper said. "Even though maybe
on record it doesn't show that we've made progress, it's definitely night and
day compared to when I got here and that's a testament to them."
feel just as strongly about their coach as he feels about them. When Cooper
arrived after their sophomore seasons, many of them were still raw players just
scratching the surface of their abilities.
Now, they've come a long way in reaching their potential. While the Nittany Lions are
still in the process of becoming contenders in the Big Ten, they've played .500
ball in their last 26 games in part because of the efforts of the senior class.
that exemplify the improvements that the team has made the past two seasons are
second baseman Taylor Skerpon and right fielder Aaron Novak.
Cooper arrived in 2013, Skerpon was a talented shortstop that struggled with
consistency and Novak was merely part of a mix of outfielders competing for
playing time. Now, Skerpon is arguably the team's best defender at second while
Novak has been the club's top hitter, leading the team in average (.331) and on-base
percentage (.406) while ranking second in home runs (four) and RBIs (22).
Cooper has gotten me to consistently play the game the right way all the time,
whether it's sprinting on and off the field in between innings or always
running down the baseline hard," Skerpon said. "Just being a great guy. He's
fun to be around and play for."
of seniors, which also includes infielders Ryky Smith and J.J. White,
outfielder Ryan Richter, and pitchers Geoff Boylston, Ryan
Harper, and Patton Taylor, has also grown closer with their teammates these
past two years.
Novak said that although there used to be a bit of a disconnect between the older players and
the younger ones, that is no longer the case.
"As a team,
during [Cooper's] time here we became much closer," Novak said. "From the
freshmen to seniors, we're all amazing friends and we've developed much closer
relationships then we had in the past. There used to be this kind of divide
between the freshman and the seniors and these past two years it wasn't at all
like that so we're a much more cohesive team."
like having seven other brothers, and truly meaning brothers," Skerpon added.
"We know how each other act, what can tweak somebody a little bit just to mess
with them. But it's been amazing. I couldn't ask for better guys to have four
college seniors, Skerpon and Novak aren't trying to think too much about their careers winding down. While the inevitable will soon become reality, the pair is trying to take advantage of the time they have left.
"I try not
to dwell on it too much because you know it's coming up," Novak said. "I guess
it's got to end so you've got to deal with it somehow."