By Mike Esse, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
With the No. 8 team in the country visiting Medlar Field at Lubrano Park this weekend and after a 10-1 setback in the series' first game, Penn State battled and nearly came up with an upset victory over the team with the conference's best record.
While head coach Rob Cooper hasn't backed away from the fact that he wants his team to win games, he knows that Saturday's 15-inning 4-2 loss and Sunday's 6-3 loss are games with a few takeaway points to build on moving forward.
"I thought our guys competed and battled," Cooper said. "When you're trying to build a program you look for things like that. Illinois is a team that's probably going to host a regional and be a national seed."
On Saturday Penn State took a 1-0 lead into the eighth inning after seven shutout innings from freshman Taylor Lehman. With the Nittany Lions just six outs away from the result, the Illini bats came alive to take a 2-1 lead. Then, just as the upset seemed out of reach, Penn State came right back and tied the game in the ninth on a Taylor Skerpon RBI double.
Then, after six extra innings, the Illini broke through to take the lead in the top of the final inning to get the win. Cooper noted how his team battled in the series' final two-games are what he wants to see.
"For us to have a chance to win Saturday and be in that game all day today like we did it shows that our guys won't quit and we're building toward the right things," he said.
In building toward the right things, freshmen are going to be a big part of that. While the Nittany Lions have a strong group of upperclassmen, younger players are now working into becoming key parts of the Penn State lineup.
One player, freshman catcher Nick Graham, caught the eye of his upperclassmen teammates after going 3-for-6 with two runs scored between the final two games of the series.
"He was great," redshirt junior Greg Guers said. "Their pitching staff is pretty good and he battled all day and had two doubles and did a great job behind the plate too. It was great seeing him have success against one of the top pitching staffs around."
"He's only a freshman too and he's came a long way since the beginning of the year and has been putting some great at bats together," senior Aaron Novak said.
Cooper agreed that the play of Graham and a few other freshmen namely those in the pitching staff or bullpen has been promising, but the team as a whole still has a few areas they need to clean up.
One of which is limiting free bases for opponents.
"We have to clean up some things as far as playing the games," Cooper said. "We walked or hit nine guys and even though none of them scored, after the seventh inning we had thrown 142 pitches and they had thrown 97. You're working almost twice as hard just to stay in the game."
Secondly, even though the team was hitting the ball hard Saturday and Sunday, Cooper still knows his team has the ability to come up with runs with runners on.
"We have to find a way to break through with runners in scoring position," Cooper said. "We hit the ball on the nose but had nothing to show for it. With bases loaded Jimmy Haley hit the ball on the screws, but we have to find a way to push one of those through."
With just three Big Ten series remaining, Cooper said his team could have given up on the season, but it's clear they have not. Novak noted there was never a point in the weekend where he and his teammates thought they were not in the game, even against a stout Illini club.
"We are just trying to keep our heads up," Novak said. "We are just trying to finish as strong as possible and we are confident in our abilities that hasn't changed so we are going to play until the end."