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Riotto Showing Early Signs of a Breakout Year

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11755050.jpegBy Jack Dougherty, Student Staff Writer
With so much uncertainty about who would step up offensively in the absence of last year's leading hitter Aaron Novak, an unexpected name has risen to the challenge early on.

Nick Riotto, who started just 26 games in 2015, has started his 2016 campaign on a positive note. The junior has started all seven of Penn State's contest so far this season and is second on the team with a .316 batting average.

Riotto has shown steady improvement since his freshman year, and he has never been more confident at the plate than he seems this year.

In his first season at PSU, Riotto struggled with his bat. In 25 appearances Riotto notched a .164 batting average and a .239 on-base percentage in 61 at-bats.

The following year, Riotto bettered his numbers to a .265 average and a .361 OBP. He was called upon for 26 starts and showed flashes of his potential in various stretches during the season, including a six-game hit streak.

So far this season, Riotto has cruised past those numbers and has been the most reliable player in the lineup in regards to getting on base. He leads the team with a .536 OBP in 2016.

"He's a pretty interesting combination of a guy that's aggressive at the plate but also willing to take a pitch that he can't handle," said head coach Rob Cooper. "That's something that his freshman year I don't know we could've said about him."

Riotto's ability to get on base largely depends on his capability to draw walks. He has worked seven walks in as many games to lead the team, including a three-walk game against Army on opening weekend. Riotto has also been hit by two pitches this season.

As important as putting the ball in play to drive in runs and make the defense work is, the art of the walk often gets overlooked. Runs can't be scored unless guys are getting on base, and any strategy to get that accomplished should be utilized.

"I think on-base percentage is everything really," Cooper said. "Any time you take a walk that's a minimum of four pitches that the other pitcher has to throw, so a walk is always a good thing. As a hitting team you have to be able to look at a walk as a weapon. Your number one goal is to get on base."

Along with his ability to get on base via the walk, Riotto has performed much better with the stick than in recent years. He's emerged as an enlightening bright spot at the top of the Nittany Lions' lineup.

"He's put a lot of work into really understanding what kind of hitter he can be," Cooper said. "He's really worked hard to figure out his strengths and weaknesses as a hitter. He understands situations, so he has a plan, he sticks to that plan, and he trusts his plan. The other thing is he's not changing his swing from day to day or week to week."

In a lineup that has only featured five players who have started in every game so far this season, the Lions are still searching for more consistency. Riotto, however, is providing a refreshingly unswerving effort at the plate in 2016 that most didn't expect.

His OBP is .149 higher than the next highest mark on the team and he sits third on the squad in hits with six. If Riotto continues to find ways to get on base, the offense will surely start to pile up runs sooner than later.

Nittany Lions Head to South Carolina

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By Michele Jaroszewski, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - With the season opening weekend under its belt, the Penn State baseball team is headed to No. 15 South Carolina for the next series on the docket.

The Lions opened 2016 with a 2-2 mark in action at Cary, N.C., last week.

The Nittany Lions swept the Army in a doubleheader last Saturday with a close score of 5-4 in the first game and 11-0 in the second. Underclassmen pitching by Sal Biasi and Justin Hagenman kept the leads strong in both games, pitching six and seven innings, in super starting efforts.

The team faced some hiccups against Monmouth and Bryant, having both games results in a 3-1 score in favor of the opponents. Though the Lions had a tougher time facing the Hawks and Bulldogs, head coach Rob Cooper was overall pleased with the outcome of the weekend.

"I was pleased with a lot of things that we did. I felt that their overall mindset was where it needed to be," Cooper said. "It's the first time since I've been here that I truly felt like our guys thought they were going to win all four games."

With the team falling short of winning all four games, Cooper noticed that those loses weren't interfering with the players' mindsets.

"That mind set in truly believing that you are going to win is something that we haven't done a good job of," Cooper said. "To watch them compete the way they did, then find a way to win, and be in all four games to have a chance to win; I was pleased with the weekend overall.

As for some of the mistakes on the field, Cooper said that most of the miscues made were aggressive ones, and were good for the players. Cooper, along with the rest of the coaching staff, wants the players to not be afraid of making mistakes.

"The good thing is that they were aggressive, and you can dial that back a little bit and hone it in," Cooper said.

One thing to keep in mind is that the team is very young this year. With 11 true freshmen joining this season, the players have a lot to learn to ease into this level of playing.

"Those guys have to learn what it's like to win games at that level. This team has to learn what it's like to win games at this level," Cooper said. "I think you'll see us continue to get better as the season goes on.

"To me, the number one thing is if we can duplicate that mind set, every time out, then we have a chance to win a lot of games."

When asked how pitching will improve and get stronger throughout the season, Cooper said that the biggest improvement already since the past two years has been starting pitchers lasting past the fifth inning. 

"When you're able to give quality starts as a starting pitcher, it makes your bull pen stronger and has more guys available," Cooper said. "Just the fact that our guys really commanded the ball well and pitched on the attack, I think they did really well."

"As a team we think we did really well, 2-2,we felt like we could've pulled those two loses out and turn them into wins," said infielder Jim Haley. "We're very happy with how we did and it definitely set the tone for the season coming up."

When asked on his own thoughts of how this season already compares to previous ones, Haley said that there are big differences that he and the team talk about a lot.

"There is a belief that we can win," Haley said. "Especially with these young guys taking a role in pitching, did very well this weekend."

As for this upcoming weekend, Haley said that the team is optimistic and viewing this weekend just like any other series, hoping to improve from the outcome.

The first game of the three-game series is set to start Friday at 4 p.m.

Hefty Freshman Class Expected to Contribute Right Away

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11704248.jpegBy Jack Dougherty, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The 2016 freshman class makes up 11 of the 32 roster spots for Penn State this season. That's four more than the next largest class and 34 percent of the entire team.

As much as the young roster forecasts a bright future for the program, there will be hardly any transition period for the newly acquired troops. A large majority will not only be expected to see some time and feel out the college game this year, but to contribute to the team's success right from the jump.

Some of that is on the freshmen themselves, but a big part of their ability to step in and add value to the team immediately depends on how well the experienced leaders aid them in their changeover from high school.

"Upperclassman guys like Jack (Anderson) and Jimmy (Haley) here and others, Tyler Kendall and James Coates, have done a great job of bringing those guys into the fold and understanding that," head coach Rob Cooper said. "I've been a part of teams and been at places where the upperclassmen haven't done a good job of that. These guys have done a really good job."

"I've been doing my best to try to help them progress," said junior infielder Jim Haley. "The biggest thing is making the transition from high school to college, not so much baseball, but just the whole school process, so I've tried to mentor them. They've come a long way, and they've all had a pretty good fall, so I'm excited to see what they will do this season."

It's yet to be seen who will emerge as an instant asset to the team and when, but there are a bevy of names that have impressed so far in preseason. Three freshmen - Jordan Bowersox, Conlin Hughes and Connor Klemann - were on Penn State's opening day lineup card on Friday. Get to know some of the freshman class.

Conlin Hughes, Infielder- Hughes is a middle infielder from Holly Springs, N.C. For Holly Springs High School, Hughes achieved all-conference honors in three straight years and capped off his career with a .422 batting average in his senior season.

Hughes made the Central Carolina Scholastic Summer All-Star Game in 2013 and 2014 and played in the 2014 Powerade State Game for North Carolina.

During the Blue and White's recent trip to Cubs, Hughes recorded a single, an RBI and a .455 on-base percentage in seven at-bats.

Austin Riggins, Outfielder- Riggins is a game-changing athlete from Greer, S.C. who can cover a ton of ground in centerfield. He showed his athleticism and speed in Cuba while adding two hits and scoring a run.

With the departure of last season's leading hitter Aaron Novak, there is a hole to be filled in the outfield for PSU. It's been a competitive battle so far in the offseason, but Riggins has a great opportunity to get time even if he doesn't win the starting job.

In high school, Riggins was tabbed an all-region outfielder in 2014 and 2015. He also was named to 2015 USA Today All-State team and was ranked as a top-five outfielder in South Carolina by Perfect Game.

Eric Mock, Pitcher- Mock was a highly rated prospect coming out of Governor Mifflin High School. He was ranked as the No. 3 right-handed pitcher in Pennsylvania by Perfect Game and a top 500 player nationally.

In his final two years in high school, Mock recorded 119 strikeouts in 70 innings pitches. He logged an undefeated record in his senior season and was named County Player of the Year.

Keath Leavitt, Outfielder- Leavitt will bring some much needed power to a lineup that produced just 16 homeruns last season. At St. John's Prep in Manchester, Mass. Leavitt belted 19 homers in four years.

Leavitt received a plethora of honors while in high school, including USA Today All-Massachusetts first team in 2014 and 2015. He batted .423 as a senior.

In Cuba, Leavitt went 2-2 with a run scored in Penn State's game against Matanzas.

Penn State Baseball Season Preview

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11686821.jpeg By Jack Dougherty, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The dirt on Medlar Field may be frozen solid, and the outfield grass may look like an icy tundra, but Penn State baseball is genuinely among us.

The Nittany Lions will begin their 2016 season in just one short week in Cary, N.C., against Monmouth. Starting Friday, Feb. 19, PSU will play four games throughout the weekend in the USA Baseball Complex Tournament.

"I'm excited to get on this journey and see what lies ahead for this team and where we're going to go," head coach Rob Cooper said. "We're trying to do something different this year. We're trying to do something special and make some noise in the Big Ten and we really believe that we will."

Starting Off Strong

Of the things that plagued the 2015 team, maybe the most noticeable was its slow start. Last year's squad dropped its first eight contests and 13 of its first 14 overall, all outside of Happy Valley.

When the Nittany Lions returned home, they rattled off six wins in eight straight games at Medlar Field. Penn State finished the season with a 13-7 record at home and a 5-22 away mark.

A better start in 2016 will be crucial to the team's overall success, as PSU will again play its first 14 games in unfamiliar territory this year before returning to Medlar Field on March 18.

Replacing Key Seniors

An all-important question surrounding the 2016 team is who will step up in the absence of nine departing seniors from last year's group.

The biggest name of that group has to be outfielder Aaron Novak, who led the 2015 team in batting average (.326), hits (59) and on-base percentage (.398). Novak was one of only four players to start at least 45 of PSU's 48 contests.

Another one of those players was infielder Taylor Skerpon, who started in all but two games during the 2015 season. Skerpon finished third on the roster in runs scored (32) and fourth in hits (45).

The pitching staff, however, remains mostly intact. Four hurlers from last year's group have moved on, but only Geoff Boylston recorded a start in the 2015 season.

Last year's seniors totaled just 40.4 of the team's 424 innings on the hill.

To replace the nine seniors that won't be back this season, Cooper has brought in 11 true freshmen. The 2016 roster is comprised of 17 underclassmen and 14 upperclassmen, so the younger players will be expected to make an impact right out of the gate.

"We got a young team," Cooper said. "We've got a bunch of guys that are working really hard, and I think they're committed to the process. [The upperclassmen] have done a really good job of bringing those kids into the fold, making them apart of the team and getting them to understand that 'hey, even though you are young, we want you to do well and we went you to do well, now.'"

"All of our young guys, the 11 freshmen, they're all unbelievably talented," said junior Jimmy Haley. "They've come a long way, and they've all had a pretty good fall, so I'm excited to see what they will do this season."

Players to Watch

There are still a few question marks regarding consistent starters and general lineup rotations heading into the season, but here are a few names to keep an eye on in 2016.

Greg Guers, Senior Outfielder-
Guers is coming off a career year in which he started every game on the schedule. No other player on the squad appeared in all 48 contests.

In 2015, Guers led the team in doubles (13), homeruns (8), RBIs (38), slugging percentage (.495) and stolen bases (14) while only getting thrown out on one steal attempt.

The versatile outfielder will take the leadership reigns from high school teammate Aaron Novak. It will be the first time in seven years Guers will jog out to his position without Novak beside him.

"He and I have been best friends since we were 15 years old, so it's kind of weird not having him around," Guers said. "I'm looking to step up a little bit now that Aaron's gone."

Jim Haley, Junior Shortstop-
Haley was one of three Nittany Lions to surpass .300 in batting average last year. He led the team in runs scored (35) and triples (4) while notching second on the squad in batting average (.301) and stolen bases (11).

Before the season has even begun, Haley has garnered multiple praises from teammates and coaches alike.

"Jimmy's done an unbelievable job this fall with his work at short and offensively," Cooper said.

"Jim Haley's been playing very well," said Guers. "He's improved drastically over the last two years, especially this fall. It's going to be really exciting to watch him play shortstop because he's been looking really good."

Jack Anderson, Senior Pitcher-
Anderson isn't your typical closer. Most pitchers in Anderson's role are restricted to solely the ninth inning, and they wouldn't even think about taking their jacket off or lacing up their cleats until the end of the game.

Anderson is really a hybrid closer, for lack of a better term. He can bring the heat in the ninth day in and day out, but he's always ready to jump in mid-game when need be.

"I think you have to give [Jack Anderson] a lot of credit for being willing to take the roll that he has, because the ideal would be to give him the ball at the end of the eighth inning or the ninth inning and have at it and shut it down," Cooper said.

Anderson is not only flexible with his role, but he knows how to get guys out too. Last year, Anderson recorded a .222 opponent batting average to the tune of a 2.98 era in 54.1 innings. He faced 189 batters and didn't let up a single homerun in 2015.

"Jack obviously in his career here is a guy that we have not been afraid to get the ball to," Cooper said. "So we're excited about him getting going and having a chance. Our job is to get him to have the ball when it means something at the end of the game more often."    

Lions Grow on Diamond in Cuba

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11546264.jpegBy Mike Gilbert, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The baseball team's trip to Cuba produced some great moments for a young team on the field. Coach Rob Cooper's club lost to Cuban powerhouse, Industriales, by a 2-1 score in the first game, which is an impressive feat in itself. Then, the team took home the first victory for a United States team at any level over a Cuban National Series team.

"[This win] is something that [our guys] will be able to talk about for the rest of their lives," said Penn State head coach Rob Cooper.

The first game was played against Industriales, a team considered baseball royalty in Cuba. Cooper called them the "New York Yankees of Cuba," on multiple occasions. Pitchers Taylor Lehman and Nick Distasio tossed four innings each and only allowed five hits combined in that span. The Penn State run came in the seventh inning, when centerfielder Austin Riggins was able to drive in designated hitter Nick Riotto.

"Overall, our guys played hard, they competed, and again, you're playing in a foreign country and to have a game like that, I am really proud of our kids," said Cooper.

After the narrow loss to Industriales, the Blue and White took on defending Cuban National Series champion, Ciego de Avila, and were able to hang tough in that game as well. The game, played in Latin American Stadium, featured Victor Garcia, who pitched for Cuba in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. It ended in a 2-0 defeat for the Nittany Lions, who were able to play a team with professional quality pitching very closely.

Game three of the Baseball Friendship Tournament was where the Lions were able to breakthrough for a victory. Riotto drove in three runs with a triple while Christian Helsel went yard to help defeat Mayabeque 9-3. New Jersey native Justin Hagenman threw three innings for the win. In the top of the second inning, Penn State had 13 batters come to the plate.

After the win, the team spent Thanksgiving learning about the history of Cuban sports. They also scrimmaged Industriales in Latin American Stadium, and pitchers from Industriales threw for the Lions, giving them an opportunity to interact in their own dugout with professional players of Cuba's most successful team.

After the victory over Mayabeque, the Lions fell, 15-2, against Matanzas in front of a raucous crowd, who used horns and sirens in the stands. That game really allowed the players and coaches to experience Cuban baseball up close and personal.

Even though Penn State became the first team to ever beat a Cuban National Series team, and were the first American team to play baseball in Cuba since before the Cold War, Cooper and his team aren't satisfied.

"One of the things I think I tried to express to our guys, is as great as that trip was a memorable thing that you'll have for the rest of your lives... I definitely don't want it to be the highlight of the season so we definitely have to learn some of the things we need to get better on," said Cooper.

The most important thing to Cooper regarding how his team performed on the field was seeing how his players responded to the drastic changes of playing games in a different country.

"If you had to ask me I'd say I learned a lot about our guys baseball wise but just learning more about them as people - you never know what guys are going to do when they're put in that type of position, when they're away form their families when they have zero access to the outside world really, so it was like these guys said, it was just each other. To see some guys open up and some guys handle it was pretty cool and hopefully that could springboard us into being a closer team come springtime."

The experience gained by hanging with professional baseball players for four games will help the young team grow just a little faster. But the way the team competed shows fans that Cooper is building something special in Happy Valley. 

Cuba Trip Teaches Team Many Lessons Off the Field

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11537065.jpegBy Mike Gilbert, Student Staff Writer
Certainly, one would expect that taking a trip to Cuba to face some of the proud baseball nation's top professional clubs would make a team much better on the field.

Head coach Rob Cooper knows the trip made his players better on the field, but he nor the players seemed too concerned with the on-field gains of the once in a lifetime trip.

They knew what a special opportunity it was to share their culture with Cubans and gain knowledge of Cuban culture at the same time, and after the trip the focus was on how that experience helped the team grow as people.

"There was an impact that our guys felt from the people of Cuba and from seeing the things that they saw and I feel like our guys representing Penn State, representing their families and as an extension representing the United States of America really made a positive impact on everybody they came in touch with," said Cooper. "...Some of these guys might go into international business someday. Some of these guys might go into politics someday and sit across from somebody, and all these experiences can really help them down the road."

One of the major takeaways that the players shared was the culture shock of going into a totally new place and seeing all the changes that come with traveling internationally to Cuba. Junior Nick Riotto felt an impalpable change as soon as he landed.

"For me it was really leaving the airplane and seeing just a totally new place. Really, it was just seeing the old cars, no real cell phones, no real TVs in the airport, just a conveyor belt, your suitcases and then the outside world," said Riotto.

By extension, seeing the Cuban children and their way of life was a major change for the young men on the team who were kids not too long ago.

"It makes you appreciate the things you take for granted...They take baseballs for gold down there...To them it's a treasure," said Cooper.

To the players, there was so much more than baseball that the Cuban culture could offer them. They learned a lot about the Cuban culture from the experience of playing baseball.

"Baseball is a way for so many of those players to express themselves as individuals because so much of their lives is dictated by their government, but it's a way for them to express themselves and they can be really demonstrative," said Cooper. "I don't mean that negatively, I mean it more as it's a celebration for them a lot of the time. I told [my players] beforehand that you'll see a pitcher throw a bad pitch you'll see the catcher get up and appear to get in an argument with him and they were."

The Cubans take pride in their baseball culture and use it as a form of expression, and that is something the team took away from the trip as well. It was applicable to coach Cooper when he talked about how Americans were outraged during the Major League Baseball playoffs as they saw Jose Bautista aggressively flip his bat after a big home run, but he explained how in different cultures, that is accepted.

"That's just a part of the culture, it's not considered disrespectful to them and in their culture," said Cooper.

The fans were an incredible part of the entire experience. The Lions played the most regarded team in Cuba, the Industriales on one day, and played Industriales' current top rival the next, defending champion and current league leader Ciego de Avila, but played the rival in the Industriales' stadium. That created an amazing rapport between fan bases, as they were having a little competitive fun with other during the game.

"Both fan bases were talking to each other; it was something you have to experience when you're sitting there as a bystander and are watching, and its about pride and their region and that was cool," said Cooper.

The fans treated the games almost as soccer matches, with loud horns and chants in the stands and a lot of positive energy from the fans and the kids watching the games.

"Seeing the look on a kids face when you give him a ball, a T-shirt, a hat, or even a pair of spikes was probably the best experience," said pitcher Tim Scholly. "Making someone else's life better knowing we have so much and they might not have as much as we do was very special.

"...They'd come up to us and say 'Americans', 'baseball team', stuff like that, and they saw us on the news and everything and that was special."

Of course, walking through Old Havana had its perks as well, between its beauty and the interactions with all of the locals.

"All of us going through there [Havana] and seeing everything Cuba had to offer while we're all trying to figure out what these people are trying to say to us and they're trying to figure out what we're saying to them definitely brought us all closer together trying to overcome that," said Riotto.

"The language barrier was pretty tough but we were playing against some of the top talent across the world, and to be able to talk to them about their experiences and about playing baseball and how they truly love the game down there was certainly a great experience for all of us," added Scholly.

Cooper put it all into perspective when reflecting on the nation.

"At the end of the day they're people who love baseball, they're human beings and they're very proud of who they are and their nation and their way of life," said Cooper

It is refreshing to see the deeper meanings and lessons that the baseball team has come back with that can help them become better people, not just better baseball players, and those types of lessons were the first that they brought up when talking about the trip.

VIDEO: Player Interviews on the Trip to Cuba

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Nittany Lion baseball team will have a unique opportunity during Thanksgiving week when the team will travel for an educational and athletic trip to Cuba. recently caught up with seniors Greg Guers and James Coates for their thoughts on the unique experience.

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

VIDEO: Rob Cooper on the Trip to Cuba

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Nittany Lion baseball team will have a unique opportunity during Thanksgiving week when the team will travel for an educational and athletic trip to Cuba. recently caught up with head coach Rob Cooper to learn more about the trip.

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

VIDEO: 2014-15 Year in Review with Sandy Barbour

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - talks with Director of Athletics Sandy Barbour to review a superb 2014-15 season for Penn State Athletics.

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

VIDEO: 2014-15 Season Highlights

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State's 2014-15 season was one marked by excellence on the field, in the classroom and in the community. takes a look back at the campaign in a season highlight reel.


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