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Nittany Lions Finish Series Strong Against Illini

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By Mike Esse, 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."

Back In the Leadoff Spot, Coates Driving Lions Once Again

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11025526.jpegBy Matt Allibone, 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." 

First Inning Explosion Jumpstarts Nittany Lions Over Kent State

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11021824.jpegBy Matt Allibone, Student Staff Writer
KENT, Ohio. - There are some nights in baseball when runs are just hard to come by. Tuesday, however, was not one of those games for Penn State.

The Nittany Lions entered a midweek contest at Kent State having averaged just shy of nine runs in their 12 wins this season. Against the Flashes, it took them just one inning to reach that exact total, as they blew open the doors with nine in the first on their way to a convincing 15-5 win.

Not only did the game get the Lions back on track after three loses against Minnesota over the weekend, it also evened their season series with the Flashes, who topped Penn State 9-7 on April 1.

"Obviously Kent State is a good team and they play us hard," head coach Rob Cooper said. "It's good to see our guys get of to a good start after a tough weekend and put it behind us. I'm proud of our guys and we got on them early and it was great to see."

Right from the jump, the key for the Lions was being patient at the plate. After loading the bases with walks from James Coates and Greg Guers and a hit-by-pitch by Aaron Novak to start things off, Penn State got on the board when Jim Haley also worked a walk off pitcher John Birkbeck.

First baseman J.J. White then ripped a double that scored two and ended Birkbeck's evening before the junior recorded an out. While the score was already 3-0, it was just the beginning for the Lions.

Using timely hitting and taking advantage of three Kent State errors, the Lions batted around and tacked on six more runs in the inning. Taylor Skerpon, Coates and Novak all registered RBI hits after Ryan Richter drove in two on a grounder that resulted in a throwing error by second baseman Tim Dalporto.

"You know, it helped out that their pitcher struggled and hit and walked some guys, but as hitters we did a good job of not chasing and when they threw a good pitch not trying to do too much, just putting a good swing on the ball," Cooper said. "And we also created some offense because we ran the bases aggressive which forced them into making some bad throws."

In the first inning alone, the Lions scored more runs than they did in seven of their wins this season. Still, the Flashes didn't go away quietly, battling back with one in the first and three in the third to cut Penn State's lead to 9-4.

That proved to just be a bump in the road for the Lions, as they scored five runs between the fifth and the seventh and tacked on another in the ninth to complete the rout.

Although nine Nittany Lions registered at least one hit, the two players who really stood out were senior second baseman Taylor Skerpon and sophomore outfielder Nick Riotto.

Skerpon, better known for his glove than his bat, was on fire all night and finished 4 for 5 with a double and two RBIs. Riotto on the hand, made the most of his one at-bat as a pinch hitter by slamming his first career home run with a two-run shot in the seventh.

"It's good to see [Taylor] swinging the bat well," Cooper said. "He had some good at-bats against Minnesota, but I felt like he's been putting too much pressure on himself and trying to do too much since it's his last year. He did a great job tonight.

"That's something we feel [Riotto] can do. We've just been trying to have him use his lower half to get barrel on ball. It's not about hitting home runs but to me that wasn't a surprise to see him do that."

As much as offense ruled the day for the Nittany Lions, they did get a great performance out of the bullpen from Dakota Forsyth, who went five innings and gave up just one run and one hit.

The Lions will need more performances like that this weekend, when they face Illinois, the top team in the Big Ten and the No. 8 team in the country.

"[Forsyth's performance] was huge, you don't really realize, that in that game with the wind blowing out you need a pitcher who isn't afraid to start bats," Cooper said. "When the game was 9-4 for him to come in and sure things up, well that was really big for us. "

Lions Look To Use Midweek Wins As Momentum For Weekend

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11004425.jpegBy Matt Allibone, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Weekends never are a vacation for the Penn State baseball team.

That's because the Nittany Lions typically have a series against a Big Ten team from Friday to Sunday. This weekend will be no different, when the Lions hit the road to face Minnesota in a three-game test.

As important as those games are, that doesn't mean the Lions don't take the rest of their schedule seriously, something they proved this week by winning back-to-back contests against West Virginia (5-3) and Bucknell (11-2).

"These games are huge," head coach Rob Cooper said. "These games are just as important to us as the conference games, because at the end of the day, they all go towards our record. As we go forward, these games go towards whether you're good enough to play in a regional. They're important."

Though it would be easy for the Lions to get complacent against non-conference teams, they have a done a good job staying locked in no matter their opponent as of late. Since March 17, Penn State is 6-1 in midweek contests.

No only does every game affect the Lions record and keep them sharp for the weekends, they also give some of team's less heralded players the chance to prove themselves.

On Wednesday against Bucknell, it was a pair of sophomores in pitcher Tom Mullin and outfielder Nick Riotto that responded to those opportunites. Typically a reliever, Mullin gave up just one run in five innings in his first career start while Riotto went 1 for 2 with an RBI single and scored three runs in his 15th start of the season.

"A perfect example is Nick Riotto, who's had two really good games," said Cooper. "If we didn't look at these games as important than, well right now I'm really thinking that we probably need to have him in the lineup somehow Friday. But if we didn't look at these games the exact same way that wouldn't be a consideration.

"[Tonight] shows that Tom can do it. If someone gets hurt or down the road if we need someone to start he showed he can do it. I'm proud of him because it's part of the whole learning process."

In Minnesota, the Lions will face a team that is 13-19 and just one spot ahead of them in the conference standings. While Penn State's last two weekends brought tough challenges in Ohio State (24-9) and Michigan (21-16), the players aren't looking past the Gophers.

After all, the Lions know first hand how tightly contested games in the Big Ten can be, having beaten Michigan and Indiana once while losing to Ohio State by one twice. With the Gophers coming off a 13-5 win over North Dakota State on Tuesday, both teams will be riding some momentum into the series.

"These past two games are huge, especially going into this weekend," sophomore shortstop Jim Haley said. "We're not trying to put a Big Ten in front of it, I mean it's an important series for us, but we're just trying to carry that momentum over and at the minimum play 27 innings, just play our game."

With five Big Ten weekends left this season, the Lions aren't looking to waste games against anyone. As challenging as this season has been at times, the Lions feel good having won two straight and four of their last six.

"[Our morale] is definitely up right now," Mullin said. "After Michigan I would say it was tough, but yesterday it was up after that win (over West Virginia)."

"Our team morale is definitely up," Haley added. Maybe we didn't have the result we wanted against Michigan but day in and day out, from the lift to the practice, our morale is up, it has to be." 

Mullin Fulfills Goal in First Career Start

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By Mike Esse, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -  Before the start of his sophomore season, pitcher Tom Mullin set a goal for himself. The relief pitcher wanted to change his role on the team and earn at start in the Blue and White. Before Tuesday's game with West Virginia, Mullin finally received the news he was looking for: He was set to start Wednesday at home against Bucknell.

"He was pumped," head coach Rob Cooper said. "He was excited."

And, he was grateful for the chance to fulfill his goal.

"I was happy that Coach Cooper and the other coaches gave me the opportunity to do that and I just wanted to take advantage of it," Mullin said.

Took advantage of it, he did. Only 10 pitches were thrown to Bucknell's hitters in the first inning, one of which yielded a hit. After getting the first inning of his first career start out of the way, his teammates gave him some help.

Penn State came out firing in the first inning posting five runs on five hits, including a Tyler Kendall two RBI double with two outs.

After seeing 10 Penn State hitters bat in the first, Mullin came out for his second inning of work. Almost identical to the first, he only faced four hitters, allowing one hit. Through two innings, he had only faced eight Bucknell hitters and his team posted the same number of runs, getting three more in the second to race out to an 8-0 lead.

Mullin said the early lead allowed him to settle into a groove.

 "It's always nice to have the offense come in with eight runs in the first two innings and it calms your nerves and allows you to go on cruise control and work pitch-by-pitch," he said.

He then continued to plow through the Bison lineup, downing Bucknell hitters in order in the third. Then in the fourth is when Mullin got his first taste of adversity. He gave up a single, fielder's choice and a Bison reached via error to load the bases with one out.

After a Bison single to make the score 8-1, the sophomore righty settled back in and finished the job, getting out with just one run allowed.

"I just wanted to gather myself and make pitches," he said of the jam in the fourth.

In the dugout after the fourth, Cooper and pitching coach Brian Anderson deliberated whether or not to allow Mullin to continue for the fifth inning. After a quick chat with Mullin, they found their answer.

"We were at a pitch limit with him a little bit and we were getting close to it and Coach Anderson asked told him he was getting close and he said 'I want one more inning, I'll get three more outs for you' and he did," Cooper said.

Mullin retired Bucknell in order in the fifth to finish with a sparkling line of five innings pitched allowing just four hits and zero earned runs on 67 pitches.

Penn State's head coach wouldn't say if Mullin's start will lead to more in the near future, but it was a good sign that Mullin went out and proved he can be a starter.

"It shows that he can do it so if somebody gets hurt or down the road we need somebody to start, he showed he can do it," Cooper said. I'm proud of him because it's part of the whole learning process."

Penn State got the win 11-2 to improve to 12-20 on the season.

High School Teammates, Guers and Novak Reliving Glory Days With Nittany Lions

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10995770.jpegBy Matt Allibone, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Ask Greg Guers and Aaron Novak how much the other has changed since they began college and the two can't help but laugh.

High school teammates who have been reunited at Penn State, the two have spent more time together than any other pair on the Nittany Lions, and both say any transformations by the other are pretty sparse.

"Well, he was super skinny, he's definitely put on some weight," Novak said of the 205-pound Guers. "I think he's the same type of person, fun guy to be around."

"He's maybe got a little more facial hair now, cares about his hair more," Guers said of Novak with a smile. "Actually, he cared about it in high school too. He's the same kid, more fun to be around, but we have a lot of fun here."

When speaking to them, it's clear the duo enjoys hanging out together. This season, however, they've both done a pretty good job bringing that fun onto the baseball field as well.

Now starting outfielders in their fourth seasons, Guers and Novak have provided Penn State with a lethal power combo. Hitting in the two-hole, Guers has slugged four home runs and leads the team in RBIs (23) and doubles (10). Novak, primarily the No. 3 hitter, has been a total revelation his senior year, leading the team in average (.364), on-base-percentage (.440) and hits (40), while also slugging four homers and driving in 21 RBIs.

The Nittany Lions co-leaders in home runs, the pair's performance has evoked memories of their high school days, when they starred for Germantown Academy in Philadelphia. It was there that both players were twice selected to play in the Carpenter Cup, a tournament sponsored by the Philadelphia Phillies to recognize the top high school players in the Delaware Valley.

"It kind of reminds us of high school," Novak said. "Before this year I hadn't hit many home runs so it's kind nice to be hitting them again. I know we're happy for each other and I think we're pushing each other to do well."

Still, it is not as simple a story as it sounds. While they're teammates again now, they weren't initially upon graduating from high school, as Novak accepted a scholarship to Penn State while Guers decided to go to the University of South Carolina Upstate.

It didn't take long for either player to make an impact with their new school, as Novak started 41 games and hit two home runs as a freshman while Guers had no trouble with the pitching in Atlantic Sun Conference, batting .309 with four home runs and 36 RBIs in 46 games.

Despite his success, Guers missed playing in his home state, and he wanted the challenge of playing in a major conference. That made Penn State an obvious choice, and even though transferring meant sitting out a year, Guers decided to join his old friend in University Park.

"[Aaron] just happened to be there," Guers said. "I wanted to go to a big school closer to home so Penn State kind of just fit that mold there. I just gave Aaron a call to see what the situation was looking like over here."

The next two years presented both of them with a number of challenges. In 2013, Guers redshirted while Novak received nine less starts than he did as a freshman. When Rob Cooper arrived as the new coach the following season, Guers showed some pop in the middle of the order (two home runs, 27 RBIs), but Novak saw his playing time drop once again to just 13 starts.

Through it all, both players had each other's support. From Guers sitting out to Novak fighting for at-bats, there was always someone to lean on when things got tough.

"Aaron made everything a lot easier," Guers said. "He made knowing the guys a lot better. I wasn't nervous transferring here at all because I knew I had him here waiting."

While there were high expectations for Guers going into 2015, it was uncertain how big a role Novak would have. While his first start didn't come until the fourth game of the season, he immediately produced, going 2 for 3 with two RBIs against Texas A&M.

Since then, there's been no looking back for the senior, who is currently third in the Big Ten in batting average. According to the 6-foot outfielder, finding a comfortable batting stance has been the key to his success.

"Over the past couple of years, I've always changed my swing, I never really stuck with something," Novak said. "The minute I wasn't feeling good I would change my stance. This offseason, I found a stance and a swing I stuck with and my swing just became more consistent."

Guers has enjoyed watching his high school teammate tear the cover off the ball, especially knowing that it is his final season. Though they are currently tied in homers, the 6-foot-3 slugger said there is no competition between the two.

"I mean, he always beat me in high school at hitting home runs so I guess I gotta try a little bit harder now," Guers said with a laugh. "No, it's fun. We just like hitting and if the ball goes over the wall it goes over the wall."

The camaraderie between the two has been noticed by Cooper, who said he took note of the fact that both players came from the same high school as soon as he took the job at Penn State.

An avid Boston Red Sox fan, Cooper likes to engage in friendly arguments with his power hitters, who both root for the Phillies. At the same time, the second-year coach said both guys have been a pleasure to be around since day one.

"They got this like Philly slang that they like to talk to each other with," Cooper said with a smile. "Look at them. They even walk the same way. But you can tell they know each other really well and they're good guys. To me that's a neat thing. I love guys that play together for a long time, that bond they have, the camaraderie they have but also to pick each other up when another guy is struggling."

As much as Guers and Novak have enjoyed being in the same lineup again, their time together will soon end, as Novak is graduating while Guers has one more year of eligibility. Though they will miss playing together, both are thankful to have gotten the chance to continue the friendship they started years ago.

"It's been a lot of fun because initially he didn't start out here," Novak said. "Once he told me he was looking to transfer, I gave a good word to our coaches and he was able to come here and it's been awesome to get the relationship back. We were best friends in high school so it's been awesome."

Friday Night Rout Highlights Weekend For Nittany Lions

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10993326.jpegBy Matt Allibone, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - It was one of those nights where everything just seemed to fall into place.

Taking on Michigan on Friday night, the Penn State baseball played perhaps its best game of the season, dismantling the Wolverines 11-1 behind an excellent performance from pitcher Nick Hedge and an offense that got hits from eight of its nine starters.

Although the Lions fell the series' next two games, 5-3, and 8-4, they hung tough against a 21-14 Wolverines squad and played their most consistent ball of the season.

Numerous Nittany Lions had standout performances over the weekend. Here are some of the highlights.

Hedge on the Hill
Prior to Friday, it had been a while since Nick Hedge had much luck on the baseball field.

The junior had lived up to his billing as the team's No. 1 starter, averaging six-plus innings and just over two earned runs in his previous five starts, yet he hadn't been credited with a win all season. In fact, the last time the 6-foot-2 hurler had seen his name in the box score as the winning pitcher was April 1 of last season.

That all changed in game one against Michigan. With a solid defense behind him, Hedge gave a terrific performance in the Lions 11-1 win, blanking the Wolverines over seven innings.

"I was just attacking the zone," Hedge said. "Getting ahead early and having them guess. Threw a lot more breaking balls today and it worked out well.

"I know these guys behind me, trust them everyday. It's just good to get that first win out of the way."

While he struck out just two batters, the junior allowed only six hits and gutted out 94 pitches to help preserve the Penn State bullpen for the rest of the weekend.

The Nittany Lion defense played great behind him all evening, not committing a single error and not letting the Wolverines on the board until the ninth inning. Afterwards, second baseman Taylor Skerpon said he and his teammates were motivated to get Hedge the win he deserved.

"I told him walking down the hallway, I said, 'congrats man, it's a lot of fun playing defense behind you,'" second baseman Taylor Skerpon said. "When a guys on the mound like that, you really want to make that tough play, that highlight reel play for him just get him right back up on the mound doing what he's doing. It's awesome to see and I'm really proud of him."

Guers Keeps it Going
It used to be a rarity to see home runs hit at Medlar Field. That was before Greg Guers started wearing blue and white.

The junior outfielder kept his recent power surge going against the Wolverines, slugging his fourth home run of the season in the ninth inning of Saturday's setback. All four of his homers have come since April 1 and three have come at home.

Similar to his second shot of the season against Kent State, Guers' blast cut a four-run deficit in half and gave the Lions life in their final at-bat. Though the team came up short, Guers once again proved he has a never-say-die attitude at the plate.

"It's the same story for me with him," Cooper said. "I don't think he hits that home run last year. He had some quality at-bats early in the game and had nothing to show for it. He's 0-3 going into the last at-bat, but he stayed with his approach. The younger guys need to understand that because they can make that same choice as well."

Guers registered a hit in each game of the series against Michigan, and now leads the team with 23 RBIs, in addition to being tied with Aaron Novak for first in home runs.

Distasio Hangs Tough With Wolverines
While some freshmen have the luxury of being eased into the lineup their first year of college ball, Nick Distasio is not one of the them.

The first-year pitcher has been one of Penn State's weekend starters all season, frequently facing some of the team's best competition, a trend that continued Sunday against the Wolverines.

Despite taking the loss, Distasio battled and pitched solid, giving up three runs in 5 1/3 innings and walking only one batter. When he left the mound in the sixth inning, the score was 3-2 and the Lions were still very much in the game.

"I think I got ahead of guys with my fastball a lot," Distasio said. "I was locating it pretty well. I think I could just do better as a pitcher getting ahead and using my off-speed stuff to my advantage.

"It's good to come out against all these teams, it's good experience as a freshman to get it under your belt and kind of know what you need to do to be successful at this level."

In his last three starts, the 5-foot-11 freshman from Oley, Pennsylvania, has gone at least five innings and averaged just over two earned runs allowed. Still, both he and Cooper agree there is plenty of room for improvement.

According to Cooper, the only thing preventing Distasio from being an elite pitcher already is the development of his off-speed pitches. While he has good velocity (85-87 mph) and placement on his fastball, he has yet to master the rest of the pitches in his repertoire.

"I thought he did a lot of good things today," Cooper said. "His fastball command was outstanding. He really went after guys with his fastball. But he needs to go after guys with his off-speed stuff with the same intensity. I told him, 'you're pitching really well against these guys with one pitch.' If he does [master his off-speed stuff] its lights out. The kid can really pitch."

Fans Provide Great Atmosphere
When Cooper accepted the job to come to Penn State, perhaps the most enticing part of the gig was having the opportunity to coach at school passionate about athletics.

Over the course of the weekend, the Nittany Lion faithful showed the second-year coach just how great an atmosphere Medlar Field can provide. With the weather the best it's been all spring, the attendance increased each game, from 806 on Friday to 1,254 Saturday and a season-high 1,273 on Sunday.

"This is one of the reasons I really wanted this job," Cooper said. "If we can continue to build this thing, we've got an unbelievable facility, an beautiful day like today and you've got Mount Nittany in the background, I can see it getting bigger and bigger. My goal is to host a regional here one day and I think it would be an unbelievable atmosphere to do that."

Lions on the Diamond: Relaxed Approach Benefiting Smith in Final Season

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10981197.jpegBy Matt Allibone, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - When Ryky Smith steps on the baseball field, his favorite movie about the sport is never far from his mind.

But it's not The Natural or The Rookie or some other inspiration baseball film that the Penn State senior is thinking of. Instead, it's the 1993 kids classic, The Sandlot.

For starters, Smith uses one of the movie's songs, titled "Green Onions," as his walk-up music. But it actually goes a bit deeper than that for the Nittany Lion infielder.

"It's one of my favorite movies, that's for sure," Smith said. "That 's the mindset that I take out there on the field every day. I'm going to play like a sandlot ballplayer today. I'm not going to make it look too pretty, I'm just going to get the job done. That kind of why I choose that song because I want to remind people what kind of player I am."

It may seem like a humorous approach, but the senior has certainly been showing what type of player he is this season. After getting off to a slow start, Smith has hit .410 since March 18 and is currently second on the team in batting average at .317 and fourth in RBIs with 15.

A player who has the ability to play both second and third base, Smith has already started 13 games this season after making just 14 last year. He has also registered 63 at-bats after only receiving 53 in his third season.

According to the York, Pennsylvania, native, his improved performance has been the result of receiving more consistent playing and taking a more easygoing approach at the plate.

"In the past, I seemed to not have gotten the consistent play that you need to get on a roll," Smith said. "I've had at-bats here and there, but never really had the chance to string them together. Now, I've gotten the chance to prove myself on a consistent basis and that's kind of where the success for me has been.

"There's nothing mechanic about. It's just a mindset for me right now. I'm going to be extremely aggressive out there, I'm not going to play scared and I'm going to have fun doing it."

Head coach Rob Cooper agreed with Smith's assessment, and also added that he thought Smith put too much pressure on himself last year, which helped lead to his .226 average.

Now, Cooper said that Smith has accepted his role as a utility player that might not start every game but is still expected to contribute on a regular basis and plug any hole necessary.

"I think last year, one the coaching transition and him being an upperclassmen and wanting to do well," Cooper said. "I think just relaxing and going, 'my role is going to come off the bench and if I get a chance I'll do the best I can.'

"Last year when he would get his chance he would put a lot of pressure on himself. Now, its just like, 'I'm going to enjoy the moment and go out there and play hard,' and he's having great success."

At the end of the day, the biggest key for Smith has been staying loose on the field. A scrappy player who runs out every groundball and isn't afraid to dive in the dirt, the 5-foot-10 infielder has become one of the Nittany Lions most reliable hitters in his final season with the team.

Smith knows that his days at Penn State are numbered, but he is determined to enjoy every one of them. In his mind, there's no better way to end his career by approaching each game with a "sandlot" mentality.

"I'm really just focused on having fun right now," Smith. "I've said it before, I've put in the hard work but now it's time to enjoy my senior season, go have fun and that's what baseball is all about. That's kind of been the emphasis for me."

Graham Comes Up Clutch For Nittany Lions Against Bucknell

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10975201.jpegBy Matt Allibone, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - On a night in which offense was hard to come by, the Penn State baseball team got a boost from an unlikely source on Tuesday.

Taking on Bucknell on a cloudy evening at Medlar Field, the Nittany Lions managed just four hits against the Bison. The biggest one however, came courtesy of the team's youngest starter, catcher Nick Graham.

With Penn State having just tied the game 2-2 in the bottom of the sixth, Graham came to the plate with two outs and runners on the corners. Unfazed by the pressure, the freshman lined a 3-1 fastball into centerfield to produce the winning run in an eventual 4-2 win for the Lions.

"It feels really good, makes me feel good about myself to be helping the team," Graham said. "I'm young, my at-bats are limited so I'm trying to do as much as I can with those at-bats to show what I've got. I just let it happen and didn't try to do too much."

Graham, who made his 10th start of the season on Tuesday, finished the night 1-3 with a walk and tied his career high with two RBIs. He picked up his second RBI in the bottom of the eighth, scoring James Coates on a groundout that gave the Lions an insurance run.

Still, offense was only part of the story for the Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, native on Tuesday. He was also stellar behind the plate, making a nice catch on a popup behind the plate in the second and gunning Greg Wasikowski out on a steal attempt in the bottom of the sixth.

"He's come a long way," starting pitcher Jordan Donmoyer said. "I just feel like he's a regular catcher back there, I don't even notice he's a freshman. He feels a lot more comfortable back there too, that makes it great for games, helping pitchers out."

Overall, it was a clutch night for a player that's been thrust into an important role in his first season of college ball. While sophomore Alex Malinsky is the starter behind the plate, Graham has given the Nittany Lions a solid platoon at a position where a strong backup is a requirement.

It hasn't been a completely easy transition for the freshman, who entered Tuesday hitting just .161 on the season. At the same time, a catcher's No. 1 responsibility is defense, and Graham showed against Bucknell that he's making strides in all aspects of his game.

"Nick Graham just put a real nice, easy swing on that ball," head coach Rob Cooper said. "It's big when you have a guy hitting down in the order that is a tough out.

"I told him in front of the guys, it's fun watching him develop. It's hard enough to be a freshman. But it's harder to be a freshman catcher. A guy's trying to learn how to catch pitches, call a game, trying to learn different arms, then he's trying to learn how to become a better hitter and it's a lot and he's doing a heck of a job."

For his part, Graham admitted that making the transition from high school baseball to college and immediately getting playing time hasn't been easy. He credited Cooper for helping him adjust by throwing him right into the fire.

"Early on it was kind of stressful," Graham said. "I've talked to coaches a lot and they've had my back and just let me go out and play. I've played a lot of baseball growing up so just going out and playing is the best thing I can do. It allows me to be confident out there."

Donmoyer Gives Bounce Back Effort
While Tuesday was a standout night for Graham, it was also a chance for his starting pitcher to redeem himself.

Last Wednesday against Kent State, redshirt junior Jordan Donmoyer struggled in the third start of his career, giving up four runs in just 1 2/3 innings as the Lions fell 9-7.

Handed the ball again, Donmoyer was much stronger this time around, giving up just two hits and one run in four innings to kick-start an excellent performance from the Penn State pitching staff.

"Coached talked to me before and he just said, 'go attack hitters,'" Donmoyer said. "I basically made a point to just go after them and just let my defense do the work behind me, instead of just going it alone."

While Donmoyer only struck out one batter, he also only gave just up a single walk and let his defense make plays behind him. Though he was taken out after four innings, the 6-foot-4 hurler put his team in a position to win on a day in which the Lions didn't have their strongest offensive performance.

"I thought he competed, because he wasn't very good today but he made up for it with his body language and competing," Cooper said. "And he did. I told him in there, he grinded his way into helping us win that game. That was good."

It's been a year of adjustment for the fourth-year pitcher, who missed nearly all of his first three seasons with injuries but has been in the mix for a rotation spot so far in 2015.

Despite having to shake off some rust after last appearing for the Lions in two games in 2013, Donmoyer said he's been anxious to contribute, and is excited to finally have the chance to do so.

"I was hurt so I've always been preparing along the way through my rehab," Donmoyer said. "It's just been me translating to the games from doing bullpens and stuff." 

Offense Stays Hot Against Ohio State Despite Setbacks

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10973371.jpegBy Matt Allibone, Student Staff Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio. - Even during a tough stretch, the Penn State baseball team refuses to go down quietly.

Taking on Ohio State in the third game of a three-game series Monday, the Nittany Lions found themselves down 5-1 in the second inning. Having already dropped the first two contests 7-1 and 7-6, it would have been easy for the Blue and White to just accept it wasn't their series.

But that's not the makeup of head coach Rob Cooper's baseball team. For the second straight game, the Lions' offense brought them back, scoring six runs in a four-inning span that put them ahead 7-6 going into the ninth.

It would not be enough, as a walk-off double from Ohio State's Troy Kuhn gave the Lions a heartbreaking 8-7 loss. Despite the disappointing results of the weekend, the Lions continued to swing the bats well, scoring 13 runs and registering 24 hits combined in the last two games.

"I'm proud of them for fighting back and still competing when they had to play four games this week," Cooper said. "We battled our way back but it's too much to put yourself in that position like that."

Although the Lions still have plenty to work on, it appears they have their own version of the bash brothers in outfielders junior Greg Guers and senior Aaron Novak. Dating back to last Wednesday's game against Kent State, the pair has combined for four home runs and 11 RBIs.

Much of that production has come from Guers, who has been tearing the cover off the ball lately. Following his two-homer, five RBI performance against Kent State, the 6-foot-3 slugger hit .385 with five RBIs against the Buckeyes, including a three-run blast on Monday that cut the Buckeyes lead from 5-1 to 5-4.

Then there's Novak, who was moved from the three-hole into the leadoff spot Sunday and responded by ripping his fourth home run of the season. Hitting a remarkable .376, Novak has combined with Guers and cleanup hitter Jim Haley to give the Lions a formidable top half of the order.

"It's good when those guys are locked in like they are," Cooper said. "Guers has taken the approach to stay engaged and it's showing out there. It's not just one or a few guys, we're trying to have an offense that's strong throughout."

Senior Ryky Smith is helping make that a reality. On Monday, Penn State's third baseman and No. 8-hitter went 4-5 with two RBIs, driving in the go-ahead run in the seventh inning with a double off the left field wall.

The career day continued what has been a standout season for a senior. While he was a utility player the past two seasons, Smith is hitting .328 in 2015 and is fourth on the team with 15 RBIs.

"He's been huge but the big thing with Ryky has been the mental approach," Cooper said. "He's just going out and playing baseball with confidence and not worrying about anything. It's awesome to have a guy at the end of the lineup that can produce like that."

While going down to the wire against a 21-7 Ohio State club is commendable, the Nittany Lions remain determined to win. Moving forward, Cooper said Penn State's goal is to jump on teams from the start instead of always rallying from behind.

As tough as losing walk-offs is, the Lions have no time to remain discouraged. They return home Tuesday night against Bucknell and will look to get back to the formula that has helped them go 6-2 at Medlar Field so far.

"I told them, 'starting games like that is difference between going 3-1 and 0-4,'" Cooper said. "You've got to bring the mindset that we're going to win and want to get that losing taste out of your mouth. If that's not motivation enough then that's a problem." 


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