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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - GoPSUsports.com talks with Director of Athletics Sandy Barbour to review a superb 2014-15 season for Penn State Athletics.
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State's 2014-15 season was one marked by excellence on the field, in the classroom and in the community. GoPSUsports.com takes a look back at the campaign in a season highlight reel.
Penn State has won 92 Big Ten titles, including 21 in women's soccer (16 regular season).
By Tony Mancuso
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Just four months into his tenure as commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, Jim Delany recalls an idea brought to the table by former Illinois President Stan Ikenberry.
It was October of 1989 when Ikenberry, who spent time as a senior administrator at Penn State earlier in his career, broached the thought of adding an institution to the Big Ten for the first time since Michigan State was invited to become a member in 1949.
The Big Ten then began a formal research process of an institution that would bridge a Midwestern league to the East.
The Pennsylvania State University was on the table for discussion as a superb academic institution with a rich tradition in athletic success.
Delany, whose sister attended Penn State as a graduate student, didn't need much convincing. He knew the level of potential a partnership between Penn State and the Big Ten could foster.
"The Big Ten hadn't changed in many, many decades, but I thought if the opportunity to expand presented itself it was a no brainer," Delany said earlier this week. "Excellent academics. Excellent athletics. And pointed towards the East Coast, I thought there was a lot of potential there. That was my recommendation at the time."
The process moved forward with the presidents and chancellors of the Big Ten institutions discussing the topic before news broke just before the holidays in December of 1989 that Penn State could be on its way into a new conference. Under the direction of athletic director Jim Tarman at the time, Penn State had been competing as an independent in football for more than a century, and the rest of the department had been a member of the Atlantic 10 since 1976.
When the news initially surfaced, women's volleyball head coach Russ Rose, who along with field hockey coach Charlene Morett-Curtiss are the two current Penn State head coaches who were on staff in 1989, was giving a presentation at the annual women's volleyball coaches convention (AVCA) about the importance of NCAA Tournament at-large bids for teams in smaller conferences.
"I remember talking in front of the group about the importance that not all of the at-large bids go to the bigger conferences and that there were good teams in other conferences even though they didn't have the same notoriety, said Rose. "We have a lunch break. I turn on ESPN at lunch, and I see that Penn State is going to be a member of the Big Ten. I come back. I say to some people that I would like to retract what I said about at-large teams."
The formal process concluded with a vote in Iowa City on June 4, 1990, at which time Penn State was officially accepted as a member of the Big Ten Conference. Twenty-five years have passed in a partnership that allowed both the University and conference to reach unprecedented heights on the field and in the classroom.
"From a broad perspective, at the time, my view was that it was a tremendous fit for both sides. And history has proven that," Delany said. "With all the other expansions around the country, I'm not sure there was one that benefitted both institution and conference as much as this did, largely because of the characteristics of Penn State were so well matched with the characteristics of the Big Ten."
The positive news zipped throughout campus shortly after the vote in Iowa.
"I remember hearing about the announcement from Mary Jo Haverbeck, from the Sports Information office," said Morett-Curtiss. "She told me about us going in and how it was going to have a major impact for women's athletics at Penn State."
It was an announcement that changed the landscape of funding and development for all of Penn State's 28 programs at the time, and it was a day Morett-Curtiss remembers quite well.
"Ironically, I had gone for a run that day on the trails near Sunset Park and as I'm running, I see someone walking in front of me and it was Joe Paterno," Morett-Curtiss said. "And it was that day, so I said to him, 'hey what's going to happen?' He said, 'I think this is going to be a really good thing for Penn State and the exposure all of the programs are going to get.'"
The women's volleyball program captured Penn State's first Big Ten title in 1992, marking volleyball's first of 16 conference crowns.
Penn State's teams felt the impact of the Big Ten conference almost immediately.
"What it did for us when we joined the Big Ten is that it No. 1 it resulted in a reassessment of the levels of commitment we had to the various programs," Rose said. "We became fully funded when we joined the Big Ten. Prior to that, we were not fully funded. And we were not fully staffed. Entering Big Ten, collectively, for all of the sports resulted in us having a new commitment from the University to try and be competitive. From a volleyball perspective, we had been competitive prior to that, but playing in the Big Ten in women's volleyball made us better because the level of competition was better than we were experiencing in the Atlantic 10."
At the time, women's volleyball had just one assistant coach on the staff alongside Rose and nine scholarships to field a roster. Joining the Big Ten boosted the program to full funding and 12 scholarships.
"As I look at it now, we could have had some great teams if we had funding in the early years," said Rose. "That was just the way that it was. When you take a job, that is the job you took. When we joined the Big Ten, a lot of us got a better job without having to move. But it's way more competitive. Recruiting is a lot different than what we had experienced in the Atlantic 10."
The same can be said for what Morett-Curtiss experienced within the field hockey program.
"The financial support from a scholarship standpoint was huge right away," said Morett-Curtiss. "And knowing our field that we were going to build was going to be a first rate facility."
The investment for success around the Big Ten stood out during Penn State's transition. Every institution and athletic program strives to be the best. It's a trait that has not changed during the department's 25 years as a member, and it's something that will be a trademark of the Big Ten for decades to come.
"The level of commitment to being good across the conference, everybody cared," said Rose. "I don't believe every conference across the country has that sort of commitment in all of their sports. I think that is one of the things that makes the Big Ten really unique. If they offer it, they care and they want to be relevant."
Penn State's time in the Big Ten has been marked by excellence in the classroom and on the field of play. In all, Penn State's programs have accounted for 92 Big Ten championships from 15 different programs - 76 regular season and 16 post-season. Additionally, more than 170 student-athletes have accounted for nearly 300 individual Big Ten titles.
Penn State student-athletes have earned more than 5,000 Academic All-Big Ten recognitions since it joined the conference, with its three highest totals during the past three years, led by 296 in 2012-13.
"Penn State's entrance into the Big Ten not only changed the intercollegiate sports landscape, it also changed our academic landscape and our future. Our size, our academic reputation and our athletic tradition matched up well with Big Ten schools," said Penn State President Eric Barron, who also noted that all Big Ten schools are flagship universities for their states. "The academic side of the Big Ten is known as the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) and the institutions together have annual research expenditures topping $10.2 billion -- more than the Ivy League and the University of California System combined -- and they educate a total of nearly 600,000 students. The benefits from being part of such an outstanding and prestigious organization with such an expansive footprint across the nation are immeasurable."
The women's volleyball program earned Penn State's first Big Ten crown during the 1992 season, just one year after the team began competing in the league. The title marked the first of Penn State's superlative 16 Big Ten titles in women's volleyball, in addition to seven NCAA Championships since 1999.
Like women's volleyball, the women's soccer program has been a benchmark of success in conference play. The program became the department's 29th varsity sport in 1994. Since then, Penn State has won an unprecedented 16 conference titles, including a string of 15-straight from 1998-2012.
The football program claimed the Big Ten title in its second season of competition during an undefeated Rose Bowl championship campaign in 1994. Coach Joe Paterno's '94 squad became the first Big Ten team to ever post a 12-0 record. The '94 crown marked the program's first of three Big Ten championships to date (2005 and 2008).
The fall season of 2005 stands out as a monumental period in Penn State's history within the conference. Nittany Lion teams clinched five Big Ten titles in a span of 30 days. The list included field hockey, football, men's soccer, women's soccer and women's volleyball. Since the fall of 2005, Penn State teams have won 51 Big Ten championships (5.1 titles per year in a 10-year span).
Penn State clinched five Big Ten titles in a span of 30 days during the fall of 2005, including one for the women's volleyball team.
It's impossible to quantify how the partnership between Penn State and the Big Ten altered the recruiting landscape for the teams on campus and how the recruiting gains equated to success on the field of play. But pitching a world-renowned education with an elite conference affiliation cultivated relationships with premier student-athletes.
"The name recognition was big for football, but when you see how many of the Universities and programs have been successful on a national level, I think that has greatly helped," Morett-Curtiss. "Exposure for all of the Universities within the conference has helped us all grow. Combining the academic side of what these Universities have with the athletics, it's a very powerful combination when we go out recruiting student-athletes."
A big piece to the exposure of Penn State teams during the past 25 years was the launch of the Big Ten Network on Aug. 30, 2007. More than 800 Penn State sporting events have aired live on the BTN since it launched. The benefits of the conference's TV network, which is in more than 60 million homes, increased visibility across the country for the department in a way that cannot be measured.
"The Network was a major step for us," Morett-Curtiss. "Just having the opportunity to have games on TV so that little girls can watch and learn about the sport. It's helped, not only exposure for the program, but it's helped the sport grow. It's just a phenomenal avenue for us to showcase our University and the sport."
The BTN's impact goes back to what Rose talked about as one of the immediate impacts his program felt - funding. Not only did the BTN infinitely increase exposure for Penn State teams, it has played a paramount role in increased revenues for each institution.
"Certainly, the Big Ten Network has been instrumental in generating funds for the Universities and the conference and the bowl revenue sharing has resulted in more money for all of the schools and the conference," said Rose.
In 2008, Penn State captured its third Big Ten title in football en route to a trip to the Rose Bowl.
While the competitive atmosphere is intense between teams across all of the conference's sports, each member institution understands that the individual success aids in the growth of the collective conference.
"I think the relationship has been a really positive one," said Rose. "There are a lot of similarities between the various Universities."
"Everybody in the Big Ten shares what they do and why they do it; best practices," said Dave Baker, Associate Athletic Director for Business Operations. "We share lots of ideas, at least from the business manager and ticketing perspective. We learn things from one another. And there aren't secrets. We all work together and try to help each other out...We all don't do things the same way. We all have limitations, but we are all looking to help one another out for the betterment of the conference.
"Some people would find it hard to believe that people in the Big Ten root for other Big Ten teams in the postseason, but we do. We follow what is going on...It is a cooperative spirit and a partnership."
Baker is one of just a handful of Penn State administrators and coaches who have been with Intercollegiate Athletics during the past 25 years. That list includes Jan Bortner, who was head coach of the men's tennis team in 1990 and has since transitioned into a role as an associate athletic director. Among the key changes Baker felt from the business operation centered on travel. Bus trips were the norm for Penn State teams in the Atlantic 10, but the geography of the Big Ten led to more plane travel.
A quarter century has passed since initial discussions of a new relationship took place and bonds were formed. Many things have changed significantly for Penn State, the conference and intercollegiate athletics nationwide, but it's been 25 years marked by growth stemming from a vision in 1989.
"Pennsylvania is a very important state. It served as a bridge to the East for us. It made our football offerings stronger," said Delany. "It has been excellence with national championships in a variety of sports. And I have always felt that the 1994 Penn State team was the best team in the country; no disrespect to Nebraska. When you look at the players that team had (five first team All-Americans on offense) and what that group accomplished. That team was the national runner-up. That was a tremendous football team. I've seen some very good basketball teams both on the men's side and the women's side. And obviously, the wrestling and volleyball programs have been dominant on the national scene."
Penn State has won a total of 27 national championships since joining the Big Ten, including three in 2013-14, and the department's collective success speaks for itself.
By no means was the integration in 1990 an easy one, but the partnership between the University and Big Ten is a match that enabled both sides to mutually prosper in a way neither side could have envisioned when the formal vote concluded 25 years ago today.
The wrestling team began a string of four-straight Big Ten titles in March of 2011.
Follow GoPSUsports.com's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony
By Mike Esse, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
Jack Anderson credits his division one baseball scholarship to Penn State and his success in three seasons in Happy Valley to one thing: his delivery.
If you've ever seen head coach Rob Cooper's right-handed closer pitch, you know exactly why.
Anderson's pitching style places him in a unique group of pitchers, a group that in today's game is very small. They call it "submarine" pitching, but Anderson just calls it normal after deciding to make the pitching style his own during high school.
"My dad always told me my arm slot was dropping every year progressing through little league and then it was my freshman summer of high school playing against another team in the summer and an opposing coach came up to me after the game and said he could make me into a great pitcher," Anderson said. "He had me drop down completely and everything came natural after that since I had been throwing sidearm for so long."
Anderson's natural arm slot has always been a low three-quarters, even when he was a young little leaguer.
When he warms up before practices or games, his arm slot is at that three-quarters release point, but when he steps on the mound it's as low as he can get to the ground before he releases the ball.
"I really want to start high and get lower," he said of his delivery. "I don't want to go down then up then down. I want to keep it one fluid motion and follow through and get behind the baseball."
With a delivery so unique, muscle memory and repetition is the key to consistency. Although, he said he doesn't do many drills that are different from pitchers that throw at a more conventional release point, he does put extra focus on where he releases the ball and which release point works best.
During his time in college, he has been able to find that release point and a place of comfort on the mound.
"Consistency is the biggest key to having the success and being able to repeat that delivery," Anderson said. "Sometimes I think about moving it up a little bit to get more spin but there's never a drastic difference. I'm trying to keep the same arm slot to keep deception with the hitter and then I'm snapping it off at the end to get movement across the zone."
He has experienced with challenging himself with how low he can go before releasing the ball, including during a game early in his career when he dropped down a little too far.
"One time during my freshman year against Iowa I actually scraped my hand on the ground on a pitch and it was bloody and it wasn't pretty," the junior said. "It kind of got in my head a little bit and I couldn't go any lower after that."
Now in his junior season, he has reached a stellar point of consistency as Penn State's closer and most reliable option out of the bullpen. With two Big Ten series left, Anderson boasts a 4-3 record with a 2.59 ERA, 25 strikeouts and opponents hitting just .217 when he's on the mound.
He has appeared in a variety of ways this season, whether it's the conventional three-out save or a long appearance of two to four innings. Cooper said Anderson's confidence is a big reason why he appears in any situation for Penn State.
"From the day I got here he has not been afraid to pitch and hasn't been afraid to take the ball," Cooper said. "Every time he has had the ball the game means something, so when he makes a mistake it's magnified."
Mistakes haven't come often for Anderson and Cooper acknowledged the righty's ability to finish off ball games.
"Mariano Rivera said it perfect it's not that it takes a special guy to get three outs, it takes a special guy to get the last three outs and Jack has done a really good job of that," Cooper said.
For Anderson, though, his success all goes back to his delivery. He doesn't think he would be the closer at Penn State, let alone a division one pitcher without the submarine approach.
"Absolutely not," Anderson said of whether or not he would be a division one pitcher if he threw conventionally.
Furthermore, he can't even imagine pitching a baseball any other way.
"I don't even know if I could," Anderson said. "I've just been throwing submarine for so long I don't even know what throwing differently would look like at this point."
By Matt Allibone, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
By Matt Allibone, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
After all, 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.
Still, it's 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."
On one 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.
When Cooper 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.
"That group 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."
The players 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.
Two seniors that exemplify the improvements that the team has made the past two seasons are second baseman Taylor Skerpon and right fielder Aaron Novak.
Before 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).
"Coach 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."
This group 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."
"It's just 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 years with."
Like most 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."
By Matt Allibone, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
The senior infielder went into a midweek contest against Pittsburgh on the bench after going hitless in his prior 24 at-bats. With the game on the line in the bottom of the ninth however, it was his bat that the Nittany Lions needed.
Smith came to the plate with the score tied 7-7 and runners on the corners with one out. The situation called for a hit-and-run, and Smith executed it perfectly, slapping a grounder that shortstop Ron Sherman wasn't able to make a play on before Jim Haley crossed the plate with the winning run.
Apart from giving Penn State a thrilling 8-7 win, the play also went a long way in getting Smith his confidence back.
"I hadn't had a hit in a while, that's for sure," Smith said. "The thing going through my mind was, it's about time you get it done.
"[Head Coach Rob] Cooper put on a hit-and-run, all I have to right there is hit a ground ball and we win the game. So I made it a point to hit that ball on the ground no mater what."
In the clubhouse afterwards, Smith barely had a chance to finish his statement when Haley snuck up from behind and rubbed a celebratory shaving cream pie in his face. As his teammates looked on and laughed, the 5-foot-10 infielder couldn't help but smile.
"Anyway, now that that's over, jeez," Smith said as he wiped his face. "As soon as I hit the ball I knew they weren't turning a double play and the game was probably over."
While it's far from the hardest ball that the York, Pennsylvania, native, has ever hit, it may wind up as his most memorable. It came at a good time too, with his senior season winding down.
Easily one of Penn State's scrappiest players, Smith started the year on fire, hitting over .300 for most of the first two months of the season. Despite his recent slump, he's remained a versatile defender capable playing second and third base, and Cooper was pleased to see him get a moment in the spotlight.
"He's a good college player, but he's one of those guys you wish was loaded with talent because he would make the most of it," Cooper said. "He wouldn't be a guy who wouldn't work at it or take it serious, because that's not the way he plays, so it was good to see him do that."
Going into the ninth with a 7-5 lead, the Lions didn't appear to need their half of the inning to win. The Panthers battled back however, scoring two runs on three hits to set up the dramatic finish.
Before Smith delivered his game-winning infield hit, Haley and center fielder Ryan Richter started the inning with singles of their own. In a game in which Penn State registered 15 hits, all but one were singles.
Oh, but what a hit that one non-single was. In the bottom of the eighth with the Lions clinging to a 6-5 lead, left fielder Greg Guers ripped his sixth home run of the season on a solo shot that gave the Lions an important insurance run.
"Our guys made adjustments from at-bat to at-bat and pitch to pitch and
the best example is Guers' home run," Cooper said. "He laid off a breaking ball
down in the dirt and when he didn't swing at that, the pitcher for them
realizes, 'He's not going to chase that, what am I going to do here.' Usually
you have an approach like that, you get a lot of hits."
The win gave Penn State a 2-0 record against Pittsburgh this season,
following a 6-1 win in 12 innings on March 17. While the Lions don't mind extra
innings, they're glad they won this one in a timely fashion.
"When Penn State plays Pitt, people are going to want to beat each other," Cooper said. "Last time it was 40 degrees colder than it was tonight, but I've always said I'll play as many innings as it takes as long as we win."
By Mike Esse, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
With the No. 8 team in the country visiting Medlar Field at Lubrano Park this weekend and after a 10-1 setback in the series' first game, Penn State battled and nearly came up with an upset victory over the team with the conference's best record.
While head coach Rob Cooper hasn't backed away from the fact that he wants his team to win games, he knows that Saturday's 15-inning 4-2 loss and Sunday's 6-3 loss are games with a few takeaway points to build on moving forward.
"I thought our guys competed and battled," Cooper said. "When you're trying to build a program you look for things like that. Illinois is a team that's probably going to host a regional and be a national seed."
On Saturday Penn State took a 1-0 lead into the eighth inning after seven shutout innings from freshman Taylor Lehman. With the Nittany Lions just six outs away from the result, the Illini bats came alive to take a 2-1 lead. Then, just as the upset seemed out of reach, Penn State came right back and tied the game in the ninth on a Taylor Skerpon RBI double.
Then, after six extra innings, the Illini broke through to take the lead in the top of the final inning to get the win. Cooper noted how his team battled in the series' final two-games are what he wants to see.
"For us to have a chance to win Saturday and be in that game all day today like we did it shows that our guys won't quit and we're building toward the right things," he said.
In building toward the right things, freshmen are going to be a big part of that. While the Nittany Lions have a strong group of upperclassmen, younger players are now working into becoming key parts of the Penn State lineup.
One player, freshman catcher Nick Graham, caught the eye of his upperclassmen teammates after going 3-for-6 with two runs scored between the final two games of the series.
"He was great," redshirt junior Greg Guers said. "Their pitching staff is pretty good and he battled all day and had two doubles and did a great job behind the plate too. It was great seeing him have success against one of the top pitching staffs around."
"He's only a freshman too and he's came a long way since the beginning of the year and has been putting some great at bats together," senior Aaron Novak said.
Cooper agreed that the play of Graham and a few other freshmen namely those in the pitching staff or bullpen has been promising, but the team as a whole still has a few areas they need to clean up.
One of which is limiting free bases for opponents.
"We have to clean up some things as far as playing the games," Cooper said. "We walked or hit nine guys and even though none of them scored, after the seventh inning we had thrown 142 pitches and they had thrown 97. You're working almost twice as hard just to stay in the game."
Secondly, even though the team was hitting the ball hard Saturday and Sunday, Cooper still knows his team has the ability to come up with runs with runners on.
"We have to find a way to break through with runners in scoring position," Cooper said. "We hit the ball on the nose but had nothing to show for it. With bases loaded Jimmy Haley hit the ball on the screws, but we have to find a way to push one of those through."
With just three Big Ten series remaining, Cooper said his team could have given up on the season, but it's clear they have not. Novak noted there was never a point in the weekend where he and his teammates thought they were not in the game, even against a stout Illini club.
"We are just trying to keep our heads up," Novak said. "We are just trying to finish as strong as possible and we are confident in our abilities that hasn't changed so we are going to play until the end."
By Matt Allibone, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The 2015 season didn't quite get off to the start that James Coates wanted it to.
After entering the campaign as Penn State's expected leadoff hitter and a team leader, the junior outfielder went hitless in the team's opening series against Elon and pulled his hamstring. By the time the Lions home schedule started on March. 18, Coates was just 2 for 19 on the season and fighting to get healthy and earn a spot back in the lineup.
"I had a rough first weekend, I hit the ball hard but got a few tough outs and then I was injured for a while," Coates said. "Just trying to fight through the injury but when you don't get to see a lot of live pitching it's hard to just come in and get hits and that was a big problem for me."
While it was starting to look like a lost year for Coates, his hamstring healed by the start of April and head coach Rob Cooper placed him back in the starting lineup. It didn't take long for the results to start showing.
Since April 7, Coates has hit .316 and worked his way back to the front of the order. Even with his slow start, the 5-foot-8 outfielder has a .352 on-base percentage this season and has looked like the player that hit .287 with a .393 on-base percentage over his first two seasons.
What has led to the drastic improvement? According to Coates, it's been about receiving consistent playing time and not being expected to turn things around in just one game.
"For me, it was about getting more at-bats and seeing more pitches and getting more comfortable in the box," Coates said. "Just trusting myself is what it comes down to."
For Cooper, the biggest difference between Coates right now and at the start of the season has simply been his health. The outfielder first began struggling with his hamstring at the end of last season, and the second-year coach said the injury was the only thing holding Coates back.
"He's healthy and has confidence in being healthy," Cooper said. "He's a guy that really cares about playing for Penn State and has a lot of pride in himself. Last year he was doing a good job for us before he got hurt and it ate at him and then to have it early on [this season], it's like, 'Gosh, is this ever going to heal up'. So one, he's healthy and two, he's mentally healthy."
Not only does Coates feel better than he has all season, his presence in the leadoff spot has Penn State's lineup ready to reach it's potential.
Although Cooper used second baseman Taylor Skerpon and even power-hitting outfielder Aaron Novak in that spot at times this year, neither player was a perfect fit there. With Coates sliding back in, Novak is back at his normal No. 3 spot while Skerpon has gone down to seventh, where he went 4 for 5 with two RBIs on Tuesday against Kent State.
But Coates hitting leadoff has done more than just help his teammates succeed. It has also allowed him to do what he does best, which is work counts, get on base and use his speed to his advantage.
"Unless you're able to watch him play, if look at look him on paper at his stats you might say, 'Why is this guy leading off,'" Cooper said. "Even when he doesn't get a hit he finds a way to get on base and when he is on base, because he can run he generates offense that way. And him being a leader, being on the field and being able to not just talk and lead but play and lead helps."
That's part of the reason why Coates enjoys the challenge of starting things off for the Lions. Not only does he feel it plays to the team's strengths, it also allows him the opportunity to lead by example.
That chance was once the things that the Girard, Ohio, native, looked forward to before the start of the season. Although he tried to remain a leader even when he wasn't playing, being back on the field has made it much easier.
"I always try to be a leader, that's the role I want to take on this team," Coates said. "I felt I had a duty to the team and responsibility to be a leader.
"I like having the leadoff role because for me, it's about doing anything I possibly can to get on base so the guys behind me can get me in and see more pitches. It definitely seems to have put our lineup back in synch."
On Tuesday, Coates put on a leadoff hitting clinic against the Flashes, going 2 for 4 with a walk, two RBIs and two runs scored. His ability to come through for his team didn't stop after the final out though.
With Coates' family living less than an hour from Kent State, his aunt provided the team with two-dozen homemade pepperoni rolls, which the team enjoyed on the bus ride home.
While he can't promise post-game snacks the rest of the season, Coates is determined to keep his hot steak going.
"They were a big hit on the bus for sure," Coates said with a smile. "Just a one time thing since we were so close to my home. I come from a big Italian family, we're really big into food, probably a lot of excess food."
By Matt Allibone, GoPSUsports.com
Student Staff Writer
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