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Nittany Lions Offense Already Showing Potential

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10812826.jpegBy Matt Allibone, GoPSUSports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Heading into the 2015 season, Penn State head baseball coach Rob Cooper knew it was going to be a process for his young team to develop into a contending club.

Now six games in, the Nittany Lions have yet to get into the win column. Still, that doesn't mean they haven't been making progress, especially offensively.

So far, Penn State is third in the Big Ten in batting with a .260 avg. and has five players with double-digit at-bats hitting better than .300. While he is pleased with the performance of his hitters, Cooper knows there is room for improvement.

"Our offense has done a good job but we can improve," Cooper said. "We can have more consistent at-bats. You're playing a team like Texas A&M, you've got to find a way to win against those guys offensively. But I've been happy with some of our at-bats so far."

With six returning position players that started at least 30 games last season, Penn State has benefited from the experience of their hitters. Leading the charge has been a pair of sophomores in shortstop Jim Haley and outfielder/designated hitter Nick Riotto, two players that Cooper believes made big strides in the offseason.

Haley, a starter for the second straight season, is leading the Lions in hits (eights) and RBIs (seven), to go along with a .320 avg. Riotto, who started just 15 games and hit .164 as a freshman, has been in the lineup every day so far and is hitting .304.

The Lions have also gotten strong games from junior outfielder Greg Guers (.273 AVG, .429 OBP) and junior infielder Tyler Kendall (.400 AVG, .438 OBP). With a pitching staff that has already gotten multiple starts from two freshmen, Cooper is glad the offense has been carrying its weight.

"Are we farther ahead offensively than we are pitching, sure," Cooper said. "One thing you have to look at, we threw four true freshman this weekend. They're learning on the fly. Then you look at us on offense, [James] Coates has played a lot for us in his career, [Ryan] Richter, Guers, J.J. [White], [Taylor] Skerpon. These guys have experience. I expect them to be a little bit farther ahead because they know the speed of the game. We've just got to keep moving forward."

Two players who have really made an impact, however, are ones that weren't mainstays in Penn State's lineup last season, third baseman Christian Helsel and outfielder Aaron Novak.

Although Novak isn't new to the Penn State program, he is in the middle of arguably the hottest stretch of his career. Having registered 12 at-bats in five games this season, the senior is hitting a ridiculous .583, the second highest average in the Big Ten among qualifying hitters.

A career .241 hitter entering 2015, Novak says he hasn't changed his swing much, but that he was motivated during the offseason to make a big impact in his final year after starting just 13 games as a junior.

"I think I'm just trying to be aggressive up there, I'm not trying to take too many pitches," Novak said. "I think I can help the team out so I definitely want to be the starter. It was only [five games] and I did well. I'm looking to play more and make more of a case to be an everyday starter."

Helsel, on the other hand, is the new guy in Penn State's lineup, having sat out last season after transferring from Mississippi. In his first six games with the Lions, the third baseman is hitting .300 and has two multi-hit games.


Apart from his production, the Altoona native has injected plenty of energy into the Lions' lineup with his determination and positive attitude. After missing last season, Helsel came into 2015 stoked to represent Penn State.

"He played a year of Division I baseball and he bleeds blue and white," Cooper said. "This is where he wanted to be. He's really driven and he a good player and has experience, it doesn't surprise me that he's doing that. More importantly, he's playing good defense for us."

"I'm seeing the ball well and my swing feels good I just need to do a little more to help us win," Helsel added. "I grew up 40 minutes down the road so I grew up loving Penn State. There was a little pressure but we've got a great group of guys here so they take a lot of pressure off the individual."

Although their hitting has been strong, the Lions are still just six games into a long season. With another test on Friday against North Carolina State. Penn State will look to continue its process of improvement, while hopefully getting into the win column.

"I'd like to improve and win at the same time, that'd be the best thing," Cooper said. "I hate losing and our guys hate losing. We can't fall victim to short term satisfaction. We've got to make sure we're building this thing right." 

Leaders in Place For Nittany Lions in Year Two of Cooper Era

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10773357.jpegBy Mike Esse, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Leadership is key to any business, team, organization or program. Especially when a new direction is introduced. While Penn State head baseball coach Rob Cooper is in his second year as the Nittany Lions' skipper, he and his staff haven't been able to put their imprint on the baseball program by themselves.

In year one, they had leaders like Zach Ell, Alex Farkes and Steve Snyder to head the locker room and the diamond. Now, in year two, those three are gone and new leaders have come out of all directions for Cooper, much to his delight.

"Both Taylor Skerpon and Jack Anderson do a great job both from a position player and a pitching standpoint," Cooper said. "Christian Helsel has been a new addition that has done a good job just by how he goes about his business. James Coates obviously has done a good job. Nick Hedge has done a good job."

Not only is it important to have visible leaders for the freshman to recognize as approachable sources of knowledge, but also the whole team has welcomed their new teammates right away.

"The thing I have been happy about is the way that everybody's kind of accepted the new guys, too," Cooper said. "And you see some new guys that are kind of evolving into leadership roles from a standpoint of this is the way we do it and this is what's expected."

Cooper's freshman class is his first full recruiting class since arriving in Happy Valley. It features seven true freshmen, with five being from the state of Pennsylvania. Pair them with two redshirt freshman and Helsel, an Ole Miss transfer, nine players on the roster have yet to play see a game as a Nittany Lion.

To Cooper though, being newcomers shouldn't matter, as everyone on the roster should have the mindset of winning the job at their respective position.

"My big thing is I want them to put themselves in the best possible position to be successful," Cooper said of his freshman. "One of the things we try to tell them is to not make the mistake of just trying to fit in or trying to make the team. You need to come in and have the mindset that you are going to win a job, and that you can help.

My expectation is for them to not let age or their class determine whether or not they have a significant role on the team. It should be their efforts and their abilities."

Penn State is perhaps at its youngest with the pitching staff. Geoff Boylston and Nick Hedge are the lone lefties to return to the staff that had appearances in 2014. The righties do feature a little more experience, especially out of the bullpen with Anderson, Ryan Harper and Dakota Forsyth.

Freshman Mark Boricich, Taylor Lehman, Reid Frazier, Nick Distasio, Austin McMonagle and Sal Biasi are new pieces to the puzzle for Cooper and his staff.

Anderson, a junior reliever, said he has liked what he's seen from the new Nittany Lion arms.

"We've had a few people step up into leadership roles, and I think it has been important with a younger staff," Anderson said. "It's been exciting to see them grow, and learn as we go, as well. Helping them through that process has been exciting."

His help and guidance hasn't gone unnoticed from his head coach.

"Jack has done a phenomenal job educating these guys on how we do things," Cooper said. "Even though these guys are upperclassmen, last year they were freshmen in regards to they did not know what to expect from myself and our coaching staff. This year, they are able to explain to the new guys `this is how we do things,' so they've done a great job."

Penn State's first test is the season opener on Friday against Elon at 4 p.m.

Consistency Key For Nittany Lion Position Players in 2015

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9910268.jpegBy Matt Allibone, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - When Rob Cooper looks at this year's roster for the Penn State baseball team, there's not one set lineup that jumps out to him.

That's because Cooper, now in his second year at the helm of the Nittany Lions, doesn't believe that any player has to be automatically penciled into any one batting spot or position. For him, it's all about taking advantage of who is performing well at that given time.

"When I do a lineup, I don't really look at it from the traditional fastest guy leads off, the guy who can bunt and handle the bat is second and your best hitter is third," Cooper said. "I try to get the guys who are swinging the bat the best up as many times as possible during a game. I'm not quite sure what I'm going to do from a batting lineup standpoint yet."

With 11 returning position players that saw time in at least 20 games last year, not to mention six that started at least 30, Cooper has plenty of options as well as experience at his disposal. When the season kicks off this Friday against Elon however, the key for the Nittany Lions will be staying consistent.

Last year, Penn State showed plenty of flashes of how dangerous a team it could be, winning 12 of 14 games during a stretch from March. 18 to April 11. Now, the next step will be sustaining that success over a longer period of time.

"I think the biggest thing we have been trying to talk about is just taking care of today," Cooper said. "And then just being more consistent, trying to cut down on the 'freebies,' whether it's an error or a walk or a hit by a pitch, and giving the other team more outs to play with."

Lineup wise, the biggest hole the Lions need to fill is right at the top, where last year's leadoff man and top offensive player Steve Synder (.321 AVG, .395 OBP, 9 SB) has graduated. Right now, the most likely man for the job is junior James Coates, who will also be a candidate to replace Synder in centerfield.

Coates, who was the team's primary right fielder and two-hitter last season, is coming off a campaign in which he hit .277 with a .395 OBP and was fourth on the team in RBIs with 15. Though just a junior, Coates has already been cited by Cooper as one of the strongest leaders on the squad.

As for the rest of the outfield, the Lions have multiple players who can play any of the three spots. After Coates, the competition for playing time will mostly be between senior Ryan Richter, senior Aaron Novak and junior slugger Greg Guers.

"James Coates can obviously play out there," Cooper said. "Ryan Richter had an unbelievable fall for us. He'll mainly be an outfielder but he can still play some infield. I think between those two guys, Aaron Novak, Greg Guers is going to be more of an outfielder this year, so we've got some pretty good competition out there."

While there will also be competition in the infield, the Lions return a strong core of players there. Last year's double play duo, senior second baseman Taylor Skerpon and sophomore shortstop Jim Haley, are both back along with senior first baseman and middle of the order threat J.J. White.

The biggest addition to the crew is redshirt sophomore Christian Helsel, a transfer from Ole Miss who has the ability to play third base, shortstop and second base.

"[Helsel] is just another guy that likes to come in every day and pour his heart out onto the field," Skerpon said. "Having a bunch of guys like that, it's definitely a lot of fun.

"I think [Haley] is really a completely different player. It's amazing what one year will do for a young guy like that. His maturity level has gone way up and I'm excited to see what he can do this year." 

Other players who will likely see time are junior third baseman Tyler Kendall, who started 31 games last season and drove in 13 RBIs, and junior catcher Alex Malinsky, who split time in 2014 with senior Alex Farkes. 

Although the batting order is far from set, Cooper has plenty of confidence in Guers and White to produce in the three and four spots once again. Last season, the duo each cranked two home runs and both topped 20 RBIs (Guers with 27, White with 24).

Cooper's message to the pair is the same as it is to the entire team. While they need to play at a more consistent level, the way to do so is to be relaxed and enjoy the game they're playing.

"We have to be more consistent as a team," Cooper said. "But what I would say to that is, what do both of them need to do to be more consistent. With both of them, you're seeing what I call a 'mentally lighter' player. They're just trying to have great quality at-bats and not put too much pressure on themselves. And that's the biggest thing." 

Bream Delivers at Third Annual First Pitch Dinner

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - It was a night to celebrate the past, present and future of Penn State baseball on Saturday, Jan. 31 at the Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel. A record number of alumni ventured back to a snow-covered Happy Valley and a full banquet hall of supporters enjoyed an evening filled with new traditions and baseball talk.

Former Major League Baseball player Sid Bream highlighted the event and talked about his career and what made him into the player and person he is today. Head coach Rob Cooper and former All-Big Ten catcher Derek Ryder also spoke to the crowd on a snowy evening.

Bream Talks Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness
Former Major Leaguer Sid Bream opened his time at the podium with a small video clip. It was a clip that probably didn't make him many friends right off the bat. The video was of his famous slide into home plate during the 1992 National League Championship Series, a slide that sent his Atlanta Braves to the World Series and the hometown Pittsburgh Pirates into a playoff drought.

Bream quickly lightened the mood by telling the tale of the Braves play-by-play radio announcer pleading with manager Bobby Cox over the airwaves to put in a pinch runner for the 10-year MLB veteran. No such move was made and Bream made one of the most memorable plays in postseason history.

"Everyone might have wanted to see a pinch runner, but I knew everything was working in my favor," said Bream. "Bobby [Cox] only had pitchers left on the bench. It was perfect for me, a guy with a surgically repaired right knee; I could go on contact because there were two outs and I knew [Pirates' pitcher] Doug Drabek wasn't going to try to pick me off. I got a great jump...I just kind of coasted into home plate to build the drama."

After some baseball talk, which included a story of how his father was drafted but unable to pursue professional baseball because his parents didn't want him playing on Sundays, Bream touched on his 32 years of marriage and his hobbies of sleep, AMC cowboy movies and golf. He then delivered a well thought out message to the all in attendance.

He spoke of life and how his journey would have been much different if not for a guidance counselor that talked him into taking the SATs. A baseball junkie from his youth, Bream grew up playing in the sandlots of Mt. Holly Springs, Pa. and was lured into the sport with a promise of ice cream for every home run he hit.

"My little league coach told us he would give us ice cream for every home run we hit," said Bream. "I love baseball and I made sure I hit some home runs. By the end of the season I finished second on the team in home runs, which was kind of disappointing. But, I had 19 containers of ice cream in my freezer."

As a high school player, Bream didn't think of baseball as a career path until a scout approached him about being drafted. Immediately the prospect of being a professional ball player was his only thought. He wasn't drafted coming out of Carlisle High School, but luckily he took his SAT test and was accepted to Liberty Baptist College.

He then talked about Liberty, the university he attended and starred on the diamond for. Bream said he would be cheering on the Nittany Lions all season, except when they travel to Lynchburg, Va. to face his alma mater.

"I did well my first semester at Liberty, but once baseball started I think I went to one class all spring," said Bream. "I caution you, though, that it isn't a good idea. I was on academic probation for the next year and that really straightened me out."

He told the current Penn State players that academics should be first on their plate, because baseball and the money you make as a professional won't last you a lifetime. He cautioned them about their odds of making it to the major league level, but implored them to chase their dreams.

"Understand that academics are the utmost because your odds of being a big leaguer are slim. Chase your dreams, though, but hold academics high and give them your all."

He closed by talking about how he pursued his passion of baseball. He told the crowd that baseball was a blessing in his life. It showed him that you could do what you love for a living and has afforded him many opportunities in retirement.

He cautioned the players to be humble and talked about players that were 'clubhouse killers' during his time in baseball. His advice was to go into the clubhouse and have a quite strength; don't be negative, be someone that everyone can count on and be a good teammate.

His point was made in his final statement:

"Don't let anyone outwork you...I don't just mean in hitting, I mean everything: fielding, attitude and your studies. At the end of my career I was known for my glove," said Bream. "At Liberty, I was a great hitter, but I had the eject-o-mitt. I took 100 to 200 ground balls each day just to make myself a complete player. That is what it took for me to chase my passion."

Cooper Sets the Tone
Head coach Rob Cooper is fully aware of Penn State's rich history on the diamond and know that his players should be cognizant of it as well. In his second year at the helm of the program, Cooper wanted the alumni in attendance and all of those unable to make it back that the current players and coaching staff welcome them with open arms for what they have laid the foundation for.

"This is your program," Cooper said to the crowd, "because you put you [the alumni] are the ones who paved the way for this group of players to enjoy all of the luxuries that we have now. I want our players to realize what the significance of wearing that Penn State across their chests means."

That's when any baseball alum in attendance was beckoned to the front of the banquet hall. They were directed to a stand where 32 white Penn State uniform tops hung. That's when the past meet the present. Each of the current players was presented their uniform tops by a former player. You could sense the amount of pride each Nittany Lion - current or alum - had as they traded handshakes and hug. They exchanged quick but meaningful statements, like, 'Wear that number proud,' "Get this program rolling again,' and 'Thank you, we're going to make you proud this season.'

Then, prior to the alums returning to their seats, it was the current players turn to welcome the alumni back to campus. Cooper, a history and military enthusiast, began the tradition of the Penn State Baseball Challenge Coin on senior day last season. These coins are given to former players that sacrificed for the betterment of the entire program and were handed to each of the record number of Nittany Lion alums in attendance.

"You're welcome back anytime," Cooper said. "Our home is your home and we can't wait to see you Medlar Field this spring."

Alums Offer Support
A record number of baseball alums returned for the third annual Penn State baseball First Pitch Dinner. They enjoyed a pre-banquet meet and greet and were thrust into action by dugout boss Rob Cooper to help handout some important equipment, as we mentioned above.

Former All-Big Ten catcher Derek Ryder spoke on behalf of the former players. He offered his support, not just as a fan or donor, but as a resource for the current players. His message was simple:

"I truly loved my time playing at Penn State and I am excited about what coach Cooper is doing with the program. However, not all of you are going to make it to [major league baseball] and we, as baseball alumni, want to be a resource for all of you. A Penn State degree can take you a long way and there are a lot of [alums] out there willing to help you out any way we can."

Ryder joked that no NCAA rules would be broken, but wanted the current Nittany Lions to know that there would always be someone there if help was needed once they are ready to make the jump to their professional careers.

"Focus on what you have to do this season," Ryder said, "both in the classroom and on the field, but when you are ready to take the next step in your life, there will always be someone there to lend a hand."

--NITTANY LIONS--

Back On the Grind: Nittany Lions Excited For Year Two Under Cooper

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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."

Cooper Says Comfort Key for 2015 Lions

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The warning track of Medlar Field at Lubrano Park was covered in snow and flurries blew about outside the window of head coach Rob Cooper's third floor office. Though temperatures reached just above freezing on Monday, you could tell in Cooper's mind it was 80 degrees and sunny.

After a whirlwind first season that saw him accept his post at Penn State in August, quickly relocate and assemble his coaching staff just weeks before beginning his first official fall workouts in Happy Valley, Cooper is ready to get away from the chaos. He is ready for his team to find their comfort zone, as well, but knows that they better be content being in a state of unrest.

"We talk to our team all the time about being comfortable being uncomfortable," said Cooper. "With 56 games and the postseason there are a lot of times that you are going to be out of your element. Not everything is going to go our way and I am excited to see how this team responds when we hit a little adversity this season."

We sat down and talked to Cooper about the progress he has seen with his team, the challenging 2015 schedule and where he is at now personally as he enters his second season in the dugout.

Progress
With a new season right around the corner the Nittany Lions need every moment they have to prepare for the rigors of a 56-game schedule. Cooper spoke about the work his players have put in during the summer and winter breaks, and things that will give his players an advantage heading into preseason workouts.

"The message to our players [entering practice] is to continue to build, continue to get better and move the program forward," said Cooper. "Our players understand that we need to maximize each day and they used the [winter] break to get stronger; not only in the weight room but mentally, as well."

Official team practice starts on Friday and Cooper knows that because of the veteran leadership and the dedication his group has shown during the offseason they will be well ahead of where they started last season.  For this team it is all about making progress throughout the year, even if the numbers might not show it. Cooper things his group made major improvements from the end of 2014 until now.

"I am happy when what our hitters have done. I am happy with what our pitching staff has done," said Cooper. "I think what Ross [Oeder] has done an unbelievable job with our hitters and I think Brian [Anderson] is doing a tremendous job with our pitching staff."

The numbers from 2013 to 2014 showed the growth of the pitching staff: lower ERA, fewer walks and less runs allowed, however it was not as easy to see the growth in statistics offensively. That doesn't worry Cooper as his team enters 2015 because he feels they have laid the foundation for more growth in 2015.

"[Our players] having a full year under our staff and knowing what we expect and what our philosophy is will help this season," Cooper said. "We want to be a great offensive team, not a great hitting team. Usually if you are a sound offensive team that leads to being a great hitting team. It is about understanding your strengths and weaknesses and using those to complement the players around you. [Our players] recognize that we are trying to lay the foundation for success now and in the future."

Personal
Starting a new job can be difficult for anyone and it was no different for Cooper when who rolled down I-99 and into Happy Valley to start his tenure at Penn State. He knew upon arrival he would have nearly 10 months without his wife and two sons, but what he didn't know is that he was inheriting an extended family that ranged from sea to shining sea.

Upon accepting the dugout post with the Nittany Lions, Cooper knew he was joining a university with a passionate and expansive alumni base, but what he didn't expect was the airport chats with former Penn Staters and the welcoming attitude of everyone he encountered while wearing the blue and white.

"I thought I had an idea about what it meant to be a part of Penn State and this community, but until you are here and you meet the people and you see their passion you don't truly understand it," said Cooper. "There is always a buzz and energy on this campus and you feel like you are a part of something bigger than yourself and to really understand that is a neat thing."

Cooper hopes that he can add to that tradition during his time on campus, but he is thankful that his family has finally joined him. Whether it is his sons, Tyson and Jake, hanging around the field or the fact he is able to bounce ideas off of his wife, he is more at peace with his family by his side.

"My family being here now absolutely helps me," said Cooper. "Being able to go home and have them there and to be able to see them, in person and not over the phone, has been huge. I love what I do, but part of the reason I love it so much is because I have a family that loves it just as much as I do."

Schedule
The NCAA Tournament is the goal for Cooper and his team and to do that he knows they must get used to playing in the chaotic environment that comes along with postseason baseball. That's why when putting together a schedule it is about challenging his team, while also wanting to put some tallies in the win column.

"Any time that you can be put into a place of chaos it makes you evaluate what you need to do to play at that level," Cooper said. "We may play great [in our early season games], but I guarantee that we will also see things that we need to work on. These games will be a test to see if we are ready to play in a Big Ten Championship or NCAA Regional-type atmosphere."

Cooper likes to use his non-conference games as a test. He wants to see how his team will respond when they are introduced to some of college baseball's most passionate fan bases. His players will have the chance to experience them early and often with 33 of their 56 games away from home this season.

The 2015 schedule includes 56 games against 25 different opponents. Of those games, 29 of them will come against teams that advanced to the NCAA Tournament at least once since 2012.

"Our goal is to make this program into one that is competing for a spot in the NCAA Tournament each year," said Cooper. "The only way to do that is by playing [tournament] teams. When you look at our schedule you see a handful of teams that advanced to the postseason last year, but what most people don't see are the games vs. programs that are contending for at-large berths on a yearly basis."

Those teams include Binghamton, Elon, Kent State, Liberty, North Carolina State and Texas A&M, to name a few. Then you add in the Big Ten schedule: looking at the rise of programs like Indiana and Purdue in recent years and the addition of Maryland that will help boosts the conference's profile, and you have the makings of a championship caliber test for the Nittany Lions.

"The Big Ten is a really good baseball conference," said Cooper, "it has been ever since Michigan, Minnesota and Penn State were making the College World Series in the 1970's. Now, you look at Indiana going to the College World Series, Nebraska is always a threat to make it to Omaha and on down the line. This is one of the toughest conferences to play in week-in and week-out."

--NITTANY LIONS--

Barbour Eager to Lead Penn State Athletics

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The 18th of August cannot come soon enough for Sandy Barbour.

Introduced as Penn State Director of Athletics on Saturday afternoon, Barbour is thrilled to begin her tenure as the leader of an athletic program that aspires to continue its long history of excellence on and off the field of play.

"When you spend a professional lifetime serving institutions and most importantly students, you dream about coming to a place like Penn State," Barbour said. "You dream about the opportunity to lead a program like Penn State athletics. Why? Because it represents the opportunity to have it all: Athletic excellence, academic achievement, community engagement and fiscal responsibility. So thank you, Eric [Barron]. I am absolutely thrilled, over the top excited about this opportunity and about being the athletic director at Penn State."

A graduate of Wake Forest where she was field hockey team captain, Barbour grew up on the East Coast and has always had a deep passion for Penn State University and its athletic department. That's what drew her to the position when she originally spoke with President Barron about the opportunity.

Immediately, Barbour felt a connection with the people, pride and remarkable accomplishments of Penn State University and its athletic department.

"I love the 'We Are Penn State.' I particularly love what it stands for. It stands for family," Barbour said.

Barbour desires to see national titles in all 31 sports on campus. But first and foremost, she will strive to lead a department with student-athletes who are elite performers in the classroom.

"We are athletic programs again that are all part of a university," Barbour said. "Our student-athletes will be students first, Penn State is incredibly proud of the academic performance of their students and we will continue to be."

Eager to hit the ground running when she begins her duties as athletic director in 23 days, Barbour wants to learn from everyone in the department, especially the head coaches leading Penn State's 31 athletic teams.

"Unity doesn't mean one opinion, and I actually embrace that, embrace the diversity of opinion, diversity in a variety of different ways, and I actually think that will make us stronger in our ability to move forward," Barbour said. "As I said before, I have something to learn from everybody, and I'll be doing a lot of listening."

Numerous head coaches were in attendance at Saturday's introductory press conference. The coaches and athletic department staff then had a chance to mingle with Barbour at a private reception before she boarded a flight to Chicago for Big Ten meetings. The head coaches in attendance exuded great confidence in the future direction of the athletic department.

"There is a culture, history and tradition of tremendous academic achievement at Penn State and that will continue," said head football coach James Franklin. "I know it's important to our president, athletic director and all of our coaches. That will continue. I know we'll spend as much time as we need to so we can start building."


"I am truly thrilled that Sandy Barbour will serve as the next athletic director for Penn State," Lady Lions head coach Coquese Washington said. "Sandy is a strong, dynamic and passionate leader. She is also an incredibly smart visionary and strategic thinker. It is exciting to imagine all the ways Penn State University, and Penn State athletics in particular, will be positively impacted by her leadership."

"I loved everything I heard today," head women's hockey coach Josh Brandwene said. "She has passion, vision and just a great understanding of the Penn State community. Both as a head coach and as an alumnus, I am really excited to start working with her."


Barbour will return to California in the coming days to prepare for her full-time return to Happy Valley on Aug. 18, and the new leader of Penn State Athletics is fired up to get started.

"We are Penn State. I'm all in. I'm ready to get going," said Barbour.

 


Follow GoPSUsports.com's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

2014 Coaches Caravan Day IX - Erie

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VIDEO: Williamsport & Wilkes-Barre | VIDEO: East Stroudsburg & Lehigh Valley

Erie Photo Gallery


ERIE, Pa. - After more than 2,000 miles on the road, the 2014 Coaches Caravan drew to a close on Thursday night on Penn State's Behrend campus during a sold out evening event.

Nearly 6,300 fans attended the 17 stops, which spanned across 13 locations in Pennsylvania, in addition to Baltimore, Washington, D.C., New Jersey and New York City.  In all, 11 different Penn State head coaches joined head football coach James Franklin during at least one stop since the Caravan began on May 1 in Pegula Ice Arena.

Thursday's finale featured a new lineup of coaches, which included Franklin, baseball's Rob Cooper and softball's Amanda Lehotak.  Director of Athletics Dave Joyner joined the group, as well, addressing the crowd prior to hearing from the three head coaches. Take a look through some highlights from the final stop of the 2014 Caravan.


Stop No. 17 - Erie (Penn State Behrend)

20140522_155416[1].jpgA sold out crowd inside the McGravey Commons heard from three of the newest coaches on the Nittany Lion roster in Franklin, Cooper and Lehotak. Cooper and Lehotak each finished their first seasons at the helm of their respective programs, while Franklin will lead the Blue and White onto the field for his first game on Aug. 30 in Dublin, Ireland against UCF in the Croke Park Classic.

"The reason we are able to do the things we do and have the success in the classroom and on the competition front is because of the support and encouragement we get from our alumni and fans," said Joyner.

It may have been the last stop, but the three coaches were received with great energy and shared the visions they had for their programs. They spoke about competition, academics and representing an incredible university as a whole.

"It is an honor to represent Penn State and we all want to do what is best for this university," said Lehotak. "Coach Franklin has an incredible vision and we need to help him achieve that by packing Beaver Stadium this fall."


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Thank you to the nearly 6,500 loyal Penn State fans and alums that made the Coaches Caravan a resounding success for the third-straight year.  And a big tip of the cap goes out to Fullington Trailways ace driver Gottfried Fodor, who did a superb job behind the wheel of the Caravan bus for the third-straight year.  We look forward to seeing the fans on the road again in 2015.

"This caravan has been outstanding," said Franklin. "These three weeks have really helped me build some great relationships with other coaches, our support staff, members of the media, and most importantly, our alumni and fans."




Miles Traveled:

Day I - 165 miles

Day II - 130 miles
Day III - 387 miles
Day IV - 175 miles
Day V - 245 miles

Day VI - 267 miles
Day VII - 130 miles
Day VIII - 261 miles
Day IX - 426 miles


Total - 2,186 miles

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2014 Coaches Caravan Day VIII - East Stroudsburg & Lehigh Valley

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VIDEO: Highlights from Williamsport & Wilkes-Barre

East Stroudsburg Photo Gallery | Lehigh Valley Photo Gallery | Coaches Caravan Registration


BETHLEHEM, Pa. - The 2014 Coaches Caravan rolled through East Stroudsburg and the Lehigh Valley on the penultimate day of the 17-stop tour through the region.

Wednesday's lunch stop was a special one for head football coach James Franklin, who returned to his alma mater, East Stroudsburg University.  Head coaches Rob Cooper (baseball), Guy Gadowsky (men's hockey) and Mark Pavlik (men's volleyball) joined Franklin in East Stroudsburg.  Nittany Lion basketball coach Patrick Chambers paid a visit to the Lehigh Valley event on Wednesday evening.  Take a look through highlights of the eighth day on the road.


Stop No. 15 - East Stroudsburg (East Stroudsburg University)


 
Coach Franklin returned to his old stomping grounds for the first stop on Wednesday.  When the Fullington tour bus exited Interstate 80 it moved past the Budget Motel, which is owned by Barth Rubin.  Rubin is the man who provided the financial backing for Franklin's scholarship to play football at East Stroudsburg.

Franklin recognized Rubin as the man who provided the opportunity to kick-start his playing and coaching careers.  A 1995 graduate from ESU (psychology), Franklin was a four-year letterman at quarterback and a two-time All-PSAC selection at East Stroudsburg. He set seven school records as a senior to earn team MVP honors and was a Harlon Hill Trophy nominee as the NCAA Division II Player of the Year. Among the records he set were for total offense (3,128 yards), passing yards (2,586) and touchdown passes (19).

"It's awesome to be home.  Since we got the job, it's been great to be able to get back here on a couple of occasions," Franklin said.  "I just felt like this made a lot of sense for the Coaches Caravan to visit.  And I thought it would be great for one of our state institutions and a place I am really proud of.  I'm glad that we were able to be here."

caravan_esu_1.jpgFranklin played under legendary head coach Denny Douds, who spent some time with Franklin on Wednesday during the Caravan stop.  Douds has been at ESU for 37 years.

"Denny has been a father figure to me for a very long time," Franklin said.  "Denny has been a mentor as a father and a mentor professionally."

"The thing that makes James special is his passion for what he does," Douds said.  "He cares so much about everything he does."

In the shadows of Eiler-Martin Stadium, more than 100 Penn State and East Stroudsburg alums filled Mattioli Recreation Center to hear from Franklin and the other Penn State head coaches on Wednesday.

"To think 20 years ago that I would be sitting here in this position right now, I would have had no idea," Franklin said.  "I think what we did do is wake up every single morning and try to be the best we could possibly be, learn and ask a lot of questions.  I've always been a passionate, driven, motivated guy."

caravan_esu_2.jpgCooper, Gadowsky and Pavlik each took time during their speeches to honor Franklin during his visit to his alma mater.   

"It's really cool to see the imprint Coach Franklin is going to leave on Pennsylvania football," Cooper said.

At the conclusion of the event, East Stroudsburg president Marcia Welsh presented Coach Franklin with a resolution of recognition for his career accomplishments.  The recognition was voted on by the board of governors of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

The Coaches Caravan bus paid a visit to Rudy's Tavern in East Stroudsburg before the group left town.  Franklin treated the group to the infamous pork roll and cheese sandwiches at Rudy's, one of his college favorites.

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Stop No. 16 - Bethlehem (Sands Bethlehem Event Center)


 
Nearly 600 fans were treated to a show inside the Sands Bethlehem Event Center on Wednesday night.  For the first time in the Caravan's three-year history, five head coaches were on stage for the festivities at stop No. 16.  After the introductions, Coach Chambers was the leadoff man to get the crowd fired up.

"I'm saying this right now.  This is going to be the best night of the Caravan," Chambers yelled.

As the crowd rose to its feet, the tunes of Pharrell Williams's "Happy" began playing.  From there, Chambers moved away from the podium and began dancing to the beat across the stage.  The other coaches on stage and the fans in the crowd erupted.

caravan_lv_1.jpgChambers is made for the Coaches Caravan setting.  He loves interacting with the crowd, and he has a knack for filling the room with energy every time he steps to the microphone.  The leader of Nittany Lion basketball spoke about the progress the program made during the 2013-'14 season, including a sweep of Ohio State for the first time since 1998.

Additionally, Chambers said that he lived in Allentown 20 years ago when he started in the workforce.  He was a medical salesman with his home region being in the Lehigh Valley.  Chambers also hinted at a possible Penn State hoops game in December at the PPL Center in Allentown, which is slated to open in the fall.

The first speech closed with Chambers urging the crowd to show unrivaled support for Coach Franklin and the Nittany Lions inside Beaver Stadium.

"Let's make sure Beaver Stadium is packed every single time his team takes the field in the fall," Chambers said.

With the sports season rapidly coming to a close, the 2014-'15 campaign is just around the corner.  Fan support in Beaver Stadium provides an atmosphere unlike anything else on campus.  The same is true for each venue in Happy Valley.  Success on the field of play is a byproduct of a number of factors, and the fan atmosphere is a big piece.

"You guys create more passion and more pride than any other University in the world," Gadowsky said.

caravan_lv_2.jpgIn true hockey player form, Gadowsky closed out the speech at his final stop in the Caravan by ripping out his front tooth and screaming into the microphone.

"Get to Beaver Stadium and rock that joint!" Gadowsky said.

Coach Franklin walked to the podium to a standing ovation.

"Now that is a hockey coach!" Franklin said.

It's rare to get the head coaches of football, men's basketball, men's hockey, baseball and men's volleyball in the same room.  The fans inside Sands enjoyed an evening of entertaining speeches.  The coaches feed off of a great crowd, and the Lehigh Valley fans were superb.

"The pride and passion within the Penn State fan base in unbelievable," Franklin said.  "All the success we are having is a credit to you."

The 17th and final stop of the 2014 Coaches Caravan will take place on Thursday evening at Penn State Behrend in Erie.  



Miles Traveled:
Day I - 165 miles

Day II - 130 miles
Day III - 387 miles
Day IV - 175 miles
Day V - 245 miles

Day VI - 267 miles
Day VII - 130 miles
Day VIII - 261 miles


Total - 1,760 miles


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Follow GoPSUsports.com's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

Triple Plays, Senior Day and a Challenge

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Penn State baseball team celebrated Senior Day on Saturday (May 17) after a 7-6 loss to Michigan State, but from the looks on the players faces they knew the outcome could have been different. Five unearned runs ended up being the difference, but head coach Rob Cooper knows the program made progress during his first season at the helm.

"I was happy with our progress and some of the things we were able to do this season," said Cooper. "The guys that are returning know there are things they need to work on and our coaching staff knows there are things we need to do better, as well. The biggest thing in changing a culture and a mindset is to get the players to play hard and compete each day and I feel like this team did that."

All weekend, Penn State had their opportunities to take down the Spartans, falling by scores of 4-2 and 4-1 in a doubleheader on Friday. However, in each of those games the Nittany Lions brought the game tying run to the plate in the ninth inning. On Saturday, they entered the ninth trailing by just a run and three seniors coming to the plate.

The trio of Sam August, Alex Farkes and Steve Snyder were unable to get anything started against MSU closer Jeff Kinley and Penn State's season came to a close. Cooper honored each senior after the game, but before the contest he let each of them know just how much they meant to him and to the program.

"I just told them that I love each one of them [the seniors]," said Cooper. "I told them that moving forward I want to be able to help them in any way I can. If that is a letter of recommendation, a phone call or anything else, they deserve it for what they've given to this program."

Special Tribute on Senior Day
Head coach Rob Cooper had said a few times leading up to the Nittany Lions' final home weekend that Senior Day is a special day to him. It is a chance for him to show his appreciation for those who gave four years of hard work to help build a program.

With just one year at the help of the Penn State program, this group of seniors was a little different for Cooper.

"It's an emotional day," said head coach Rob Cooper. "For some of these guys it will be the last time they put on the uniform...they put a lot of time and energy into making this program better. I don't like Senior Days because it means you're saying good bye in a way and this group has brought tremendous energy and effort all year. I wish I had more time with this group."

All eight seniors on the roster played over the weekend with seven penciled into the starting lineup at some point. Tim Dunn and Ian Parvin started on the mound on Friday and Sunday, respectively, while Greg Welsh collected the final out in Saturday's season finale. Sam August, Alex Farkes, Zach Ell, Colin Keefe and Steve Snyder each started at least two games on the weekend.

"Those eight seniors are guys that everyone in the locker room looks up to," said Taylor Skerpon. "We all went through the same changes this season, but for them to show so much maturity and leadership through the coaching change is something that everyone can keep with them. They showed us how quickly and easily it is to buy in to a system and make it successful."

Accepting the Challenge
Prior to Senior Day, each departing player was presented with a challenge coin; a medallion usually issued by military unit commanders in recognition of special achievement by a member of that unit. The coin is a symbol that they can carry with them showing their standing, and this group was the first honored with the token under Cooper.

Cooper also addressed the seniors in the locker room and lauded them for their attitude and effort while going through something that not many players have to go through. He praised them for accepting change and, in some ways, being "freshmen" again and having to learn a new system.

"The challenge coin was a way to show our guys that they are all connected through this special journey," said Cooper. "The challenge coin is a way to distinguish them as Penn State baseball alums and the only way to attain it [the coin] is to play baseball and graduate from Penn State. It shows them they are a part of something special."

The coin represented more than just admittance into the Penn State baseball alumni family, but it confirmed what many of those seniors already knew about coach Cooper: he cared.

"I grew so much as a baseball player and a person this season," said senior Zach Ell, "I can't thank the coaching staff enough. To see the coin, with the Penn State logo on one side and the baseball alumni on the other, is something I will cherish for the rest of my life. It's a token to show all the hard work we all put in the last four years and that really means a lot. I love [Cooper] to death and I appreciate all he has done for us."

Pair of Triple Plays Land Lions Atop #SCTop10
Penn State has fielded a baseball team for 127 seasons and never before have the Nittany Lions turned two triple plays in a single game. In fact, only once in Division I baseball history - 2006 when Gonzaga did so at Washington State - has it happened.

The plays helped the Blue and White nail down the top spot on SportsCenter's Top 10, appeared on ESPN's Baseball Tonight and was highlighted on the MLB Network in their evening coverage.  The YouTube video had over 232,000 views as of May 21.

On Friday, May 16th in the first game of a doubleheader, Penn State equaled that feat with a pair of triple plays vs. Michigan State. In the fourth inning, the Spartans had runners on first and second with no out when Tim Dunn got MSU's Blaise Salter to line out Jim Haley at shortstop. With both runners breaking on the play, Haley stepped on second base and threw across to J.J. White at first base to complete the triple play.

In the eighth inning, Haley was again part of the three-out play when a single and an error put two runners for the Spartans Jimmy Pickens. Penn State's Ryan Harper watched Pickens line a ball towards center field that Taylor Skerpon made a leaping catch on, tossed to Haley who then threw to White to write Penn State into the NCAA record books.

Penn State ended the season with three triple plays, also turning one at Santa Clara on March 15.

"It's pretty surreal to be a part of something like that," said junior Taylor Skerpon. "Waking up today I had about 100 notifications about being on SportsCenter. You sometimes don't believe it happened. I joked around a little with Jim (Haley) about not flipping the first ball to me, but to see it happen twice in one game and to be a part of it is a lot of fun."

Applying Pressure
First year head coach Rob Cooper will admit that he wasn't exactly a baseball prodigy during his time as a college player, but in his 21years the dugouts his teams have produce a lot offensively. The reasons for the turnaround at Penn State can be attributed to sound offensive players, but Cooper approach and coaching philosophy also plays a role in that.

In his nine seasons at Wright State, Cooper's teams set five of the school's top 10 team batting averages, while also accounting for five or more seasons in the top-10 of season doubles, sacrifice hit, sacrifice flies and hit by pitch.

This season, Cooper took a nearly identical lineup and watched them improve in nearly every statistical category. They ended the year just shy of last season's batting average and slugging percentage, while topping their 2013 totals in on-base percentage (.338), walks (184), hit-by-pitch (40), stolen bases (50) and sacrifice files (22). They also cut down on their strikeouts in 2014.

"What we try to do is be a smart offensive team and take advantage of what the other team is giving us," said head coach Rob Cooper. "Today we did a good job hitting with two outs, we took advantage of some things like delayed steals and we used our short game well. It's about taking what the other team is giving us that day and making it work."

Working Within the Zone
Pitching coach Brian Anderson said early in the season that his pitching staff would attack the strike zone and look to start bats. His pitchers reiterated that point throughout the season, saying they had "trust in the defense behind them" and that trust equated into a lower ERA, less runs allowed and over 100 free passes fewer than they had in 50 games in 2013.

As a staff, Penn State improved their ERA from a season ago. The Lions staff ended the year with a 4.77 earned run average, allowing fewer runs (304), earned runs (226) and walks (141) in 50 games. The staff also hit fewer batters and threw fewer wild pitches during the season.

From 2013 to 2014, Penn State pitches walked 97 fewer hitters and hit nine fewer batters for a total of 106 fewer free bases. The defense also did a better job of taking care of the baseball, committing 12 less errors on the year, limiting the extra outs supplied to the opposition and building a trust with their mound workers.

"Our pitching staff made a large commitment in the offseason to be strike throwers," said assistant coach Brian Anderson. "We made a lot of strides during that time and throughout the season and I am proud of them for buying into our philosophy of attacking hitters." 

 

--NITTANY LIONS--