Cooper’s Town, Pt. 3: 2016 Penn State Baseball Season Preview
After a nine-month drought, baseball is finally back in Happy Valley. Coach Rob Cooper enters his third season with the Nittany Lions after back-to-back 18-win seasons. Even though we’re still in the frigid month of February, the Diamond Lions are ready to lace up their cleats and dig into the dirt to commence the 2016 baseball season.
Key Players Return To Improve On 18-win Seasons
Senior outfielder Greg Guers returns to finish what he started in what was a very impressive 2015 campaign. Guers showed off his hitting prowess as he led almost every offensive category for the Nittany Lions. In the categories he led, Guers had eight home runs, 38 RBIs, 14 stolen bases, 101 total bases, and a .495 slugging percentage.
Another offensive powerhouse to return for the Nittany Lions is junior shortstop Jim Haley. He was one of the most productive players for Penn State last season as he led the team in Big Ten games with a .333 batting average, 15 runs, nine doubles, and three triples. Guers and Haley will provide a solid foundation for the Nittany Lions on offense at the start of the season.
On the mound, Penn State has some key pitchers returning to improve on where they left off last season. One of those players is sophomore pitcher Taylor Lehman.
Lehman was one of the most exciting additions to the squad last season because of his starting potential. To start his Penn State career, he seemed to lack control with a 6.40 ERA and 31 walks but was still getting adjusted to his new role as a starting pitcher in the Big Ten. Now in his sophomore year, Lehman has had the time to improve and can show Penn State why he was such an anticipated player at the start of the 2015 season.
Seniority and consistency are crucial in a successful bullpen, and Jack Anderson bring those traits to Penn State as he returns for his final season. Anderson was Cooper’s most reliable reliever as he appeared in 29 of the team’s 48 games, while sporting a 2.98 ERA and four wins. Anderson also came through in important save situations with a team-leading five saves. Anderson wants to help make the team successful in his final season.
“I haven’t been to a Big Ten Tournament,” Anderson said. “This will be my senior year, so that’s the immediate goal.”
A Historic Trip In Hopes For A Historic Year
The third year of Rob Cooper’s tenure opened with an exciting opportunity: a trip to play a four-game series in Cuba. The Nittany Lions went 1-3 in the series, however, the games were only just part of the experience for Penn State. Shortstop Jim Haley said that the team came closer together as they spent every day with each other.
With the loss of some key players to graduation and a new class of recruits, the trip to Cuba helped the squad gain synergy early, which could develop into some success to start the season. Cooper said it also helped the team speed up the process of getting ready to play during the season. The freshman and younger players on the team got to experience the motions of game day for Penn State baseball months before the season.
The trip to Cuba included a historic victory as the Nittany Lions defeated Mayabeque 9-3. This win was the first by a United States team at any level over a Cuban National Series team.
New Faces Will Turn Heads
The 2016 squad is loaded with young talent, with 11 freshmen on the roster. Some may have limited playing time, while others will play significantly after impressive debuts in Cuba. The trip to Cuba was not only beneficial for the chemistry of the team, but it was also a good time to see most of the new players in action. With the large number of freshmen on the roster, Coach Cooper wants to get most of them involved.
“I will tell you that there’s going to be some guys that are going to be young and are going to get a chance to play, because you have to,” Cooper said. “You have to get them in there and find out what they can do when you’re going to need them later.”
Three exciting young position players showed off their talents in Cuba and could be seen a lot this season. One was freshman right fielder Jordan Bowersox. Bowersox played in all four games for the Nittany Lions in Cuba and was Penn State’s leading hitter. Bowersox started three games in the outfield, was the lead-off batter, and had a team-high .357 batting average.
Bowersox brings his impressive hitting ability to a team that struggled to get runners on base at times last season. He also brings a lot of potential for the future of the program, along with fellow freshman outfielder Austin Riggins.
Riggins started in three games, drove in the first run of the Cuba series for Penn State, and made numerous impressive catches in the outfield. Riggins’ speed and ability to track down fly balls is what makes him such a dangerous and effective center fielder. Riggins will compete with James Coates for the starting position, but expect to see Riggins on the field a lot this season with his exciting potential.
The third player that was impressive in Cuba was freshman second baseman Conlin Hughes. Hughes showed that he can draw walks and get on base during the trip. He had an on-base percentage of .445 and was walked three times in the historic win over Mayabeque. He started in two of the four games and Hughes could be in line to win the starting second baseman job that has been vacant upon Taylor Skerpon‘s graduation.
Bowersox, Riggins, and Hughes are three players that can hopefully strengthen the Nittany Lions this season through their individual strengths, while also show flashes of how they will impact the future of Penn State baseball.
Premier Matchups Highlight Cooper’s Third Season
Coach Cooper’s squad returns to the diamond with a schedule similar in difficulty to his previous two seasons. While Penn State’s strong Big Ten opponents include Maryland, Iowa, Michigan, and Illinois, Penn State’s non-conference schedule features some matchups against some of the best programs in the country. Two key series for Penn State this season are three games against the 2010 and 2011 National Champions South Carolina at the end of February and three games that Penn State is nicknaming “The Series” against College World Series semifinalists TCU.
“I’m really excited about [the series with TCU] and I’m excited that it’s creating some buzz, but it’s just another series right now, honestly,” Cooper said. “I have to temper people because it is a big deal and to get Medlar Field rocking and have a College World Series-type program come in here is great, but I don’t want that to be the highlight of our season.”
The Penn State Nittany Lions under Head Coach Rob Cooper have improved incrementally in these past two seasons. While both seasons ended with 18 wins, the team looked stronger and more connected in the second. This year should be no different.
Since this is Cooper’s third year, it’s time to see how his recruits will all work together. It will also show how he’s developed the players that were here before his arrival. While Penn State baseball is not the most popular sport on campus, Rob Cooper can bring a winning program to Happy Valley and it could start with this young nucleus in the 2016 season.