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By Jack Dougherty, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The start of the 2017 baseball season is inching closer and closer for the Nittany Lions, and the anticipation surrounding the team is growing with each passing day.
The anticipation, however, will need to soon be channeled into focus. Penn State faces a daunting challenge in its first action back on the diamond since last season, as the Blue and White will be traveling to Fort Worth, Texas this weekend for a three-game series against No. 1 ranked TCU.
"To me there's no better opportunity than opening weekend going and playing the consensus number one-ranked team in the country in all the polls because you're going to find out right away what you need to work on, what you need to get better at and that's what I think we're going to be able to do," head coach Rob Cooper said.
TCU was voted as the consensus No. 1 team in the NCAA by all six major college baseball polls, so there's little doubt around the country that the Horned Frogs are the team to beat this season. The Horned Frogs have reached the College World Series three straight years and have the talent to win it all in 2017.
"We can't really worry about any of that," Cooper said. "For us, it's about playing a faceless opponent and about trying to get better every single day. If we do that, it doesn't really matter who we play."
The Lions did get a taste of TCU last season, but they were swept in a home three-game series at Medlar Field. The series was much closer than a sweep usually expresses, though. Penn State was able to score on TCU all weekend and lost the second game by just one run.
The Lions are confident a second chance will produce more favorable results.
"We're going to expect a pretty good series," senior outfielder Nick Riotto said. "I think that everybody here will tell you we expect to win no matter what they're ranked or who they are really."
Confidence is exuding from the Nittany Lions even before the season has begun. Riotto sure shows it, and so does sophomore pitcher Justin Hagenman.
Hagenman will toe the rubber to start the finale of the series on Sunday. He said the Horned Frogs offense must be respected, but it doesn't scare him.
"They do a lot of little things right," Hagenman said. "They're really good at running the bases and stuff like that. They really don't give away at-bats, but I think if we pitch our game and we all play our game I think they're just another team. That's the way we have to look at it."
Barring any changes, Hagenman looks to be the regular Sunday starter for Penn State like he was last year. For this weekend, Sal Biasi will start Friday's game and Taylor Lehman will get the ball on Saturday, Cooper said.
Everything the Lions have said leading up to opening weekend gives the impression that they're fully prepared and excited for the test. Maybe the biggest reason for this is the emphasis coaches place on intersquad scrimmages during recent practices.
Penn State tried to implement live action in at least a few practices each week during the preseason. Getting players used to seeing hard fastballs and adjusting to off-speed pitches as opposed to just soft toss is crucial to full preparedness when there's a real opponent in the other dugout.
"It's a huge deal," Cooper said. "Honestly it's one of the reasons why I really wanted to take the job here at Penn State because I knew in January and February we can actually play intersquads and get our guys to face hitters, to have to hold guys on, to cover first. So our guys have actually played baseball games rather than just hit in a cage or throw bullpens."
Riotto echoed Cooper, noting that he thinks it's one of the most crucial aspects of preseason practices. He said the team started off a little slow, but now the energy is better and he thinks they're right where they need to be.
Riotto said Hagenman is a tough pitcher to face during inter-squads because of his changeup, but he thinks Biasi is the hardest to hit off of.
The Lions are getting used to their own teammates' tendencies, so facing other pitchers and hitters should be a refreshing challenge. Cooper hopes the focus on intersquad play for the past few weeks will have the team ready to jump right in and compete with the best team in the country.
First pitch of the 2017 season is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday. Saturday's game will start at 3 p.m. and Sunday's at 1 p.m.