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.
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."
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."
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."