By Jack Dougherty, GoPSUsports.com student
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State is set to begin its Big Ten slate this weekend with a three-game series against Rutgers on the road in Piscataway, New Jersey.
The Nittany Lions are coming off a 2017 season in which the team posted a 4-20 record in conference play, but that isn't sending Penn State head coach Rob Cooper astray from his yearly goals.
Cooper said the team's goal for conference play is to make the Big Ten Tournament at the end of the season.
In the Big Ten, the top eight teams are invited to the tournament after the regular season. The Nittany Lions are currently sitting in 12th place in the conference with a 6-9 record, but Big Ten games matter much more in regards to conference standings.
A strong opening weekend against Rutgers could vault Penn State to the top of the conference standings in a hurry.
"Last year is last year. Now we got to work on just trying to win one game at Rutgers and going from there," Cooper said. "It's really honestly just about us and this year's team and what we can do to get better."
Taking from conversations with Penn State football head coach James Franklin, Cooper's approach to the start of Big Ten play has been Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers.
"It's a different challenge. It's a different part of the season, but I don't look at it much differently because if I look at different parts of the season differently then I'm not getting our guys to buy in to one game at a time, one pitch at a time," Cooper said.
Cooper and the rest of the team are locked in to the one game at a time approach, but there's no denying conference game have an extra splash of excitement.
Junior starting pitcher Justin Hagenman knows the difference between suiting up against Big Ten teams and nonconference opponents. Hagenman has recorded the most starts for Penn State against conference teams over the last two seasons.
Hagenman has recorded some of his best starts and notched personal best performances against Big Ten teams. In his freshman season, Hagenman won his sixth game against Rutgers to become Penn State's winningest pitcher in one season since 2011.
It's also the thrill of conference rivalries that fuels the junior to another level.
"Everything's on the line," Hagenman said. "Every game is very important. Every weekend is very important, so you just got to do everything you can. All these games and practices--this is what you're working for."
Looking out across the Big Ten, seven of the teams currently have winning records, with Indiana holding the top spot at 15-4. Illinois and Ohio State round out the top three.
Rutgers sits at sixth place in the conference with an 11-7 record.
The Scarlet Knights boast five players with batting averages above .300 in their balanced offense. Leading the charge is Kyle Walker, who owns a .417 average and a .491 on-base percentage.
On the mound, Eric Heatter leads the starters with a 2.35 ERA in 23 innings pitched. Bullpen aces Collin Kiernan and Brito Serafino have logged nine and 10 appearances, respectively, and have both been shut down so far this year.
Kiernan owns a team-best 1.74 ERA and Serafino leads all relievers with 17 strikeouts in 14.2 innings.
"[Rutgers is] super aggressive on the bases," Cooper said. "Their starting pitching is going to attack the strike zone and they're tough to beat at home, so we're going to have our work cut out for us. We got to keep them off the bases. We got to hold their running game down, and we got to just do a better job of limiting the free baseball that we give up."
For Cooper, he believes his team will succeed this weekend if it can cut down on strikeouts offensively and errors and walks defensively.
For Hagenman, it's Penn State's four days off this week that will help, ensuring every pitcher is rested and ready to contribute this weekend.
"It would've been good to play them just to get everybody in there, but we get fresh without playing those games," Hagenman said. "Everybody's good to go now pitching-wise, and we got some good days of practice in, so I feel like we did what we needed to do without playing those games and I think we're ready to go for this weekend."