First Baseman Willie Burger Shining On The Diamond
Penn State baseball is starting to turn the corner during coach Rob Cooper’s third season in the dugout.
Though the Nittany Lions’ 9-10 non-conference record might suggest otherwise, it’s important to remember they’re playing a national schedule and the Big Ten is full of talented teams.
Cooper is breaking in 11 true freshman this season, many of whom have been tasked with learning the college game while simultaneously playing significant innings. Some have even taken on starting roles right off the bat. First baseman Willie Burger is one of those young Nittany Lions who, despite enduring some early-season struggles, is coming into his own and showcasing plenty of talent.
“Early in the year, in the fall, they [the team’s veterans] said to us, ‘You’re not here to sit around and wait; we need you right now.’ And they did a great job of getting us ready to make an impact,” Burger said.
Burger was recently named Big Ten Freshman and Player of the Week for his stellar performance in the home-opening Niagara series last weekend. “It justifies a lot of hard work. It could have gone one of two ways after the first two weekends. I could have felt sorry for myself, but I didn’t; I kept working,” Burger said. “To have it pay off and have it be recognized, it feels good. I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t.”
The 6-foot, 200-pounder out of Lancaster, Pa., posted a ridiculous .636 batting average on seven hits, crossing the plate four times for the Nittany Lions over the course of three games. “It felt good to finally get back here in Medlar and play in front of our home fans and get two wins,” he said.
The former Lancaster High School standout transferred to the prestigious IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., to better prepare himself for the rigors of being a Division I student athlete before ever even stepping foot on campus. The right-hander, who played his travel ball with Tri-State Arsenal, has all the tools you’re looking for in a first baseman — with far more speed than a loafing defensive liability.
“Starting out my college career, I was trying to do way too much; trying to drive balls over the fence that were out of the strike zone. I wasn’t really giving myself a chance at the plate, so just to feel good, calm down, and stay within myself as of late has felt good,” Burger said.
“When you’re a young guy, you wanna do a couple things. You wanna prove to your teammates and coaches that you belong; you wanna get off to a good start. You’re trying to understand what it means to travel and budget your time and balance your academics,” coach Rob Cooper said.
After spending Thanksgiving Break in Cuba for a groundbreaking tour of exhibition games, Penn State swung through the Carolinas and Virginia in February and early March. Though national powerhouse South Carolina made relatively easy work of the Nittany Lions, Penn State was able to hold off Duke 2-1 for a huge win two weeks ago. Those early road trips played a big role in preparing the team for a loaded schedule the rest of the way (TCU comes to town in early May, for one) and helped Burger become more comfortable.
“As a whole, we’ve played pretty well on the defensive side of the ball for long stretches. And then we’ve had little innings where, I don’t know if we lose focus or what, but it just catches up to us,” Burger said. “I think that we’re really close to taking a huge step defensively. I think we’ve got a lot of talent and a lot of guys that can do well and we can take care of the ball a little better, but I like where we’re at as a club right now.”
A versatile corner infielder, Burger started in three of the team’s four games in Cuba at third base. Since then, he’s found a home on the opposite side of the diamond, snaring put-outs with cat-like reflexes. On top of his defensive prowess, Burger can really just swing the bat. Despite going 0-for-3 with a walk against West Virginia Tuesday, a game in which the Nittany Lions came out on top 5-4, Burger is currently tied with junior right fielder Nick Riotto for second on the team with a .288 batting average. Burger’s 14 RBIs lead the Nittany Lions offensively, and although he’s yet to go yard, the power is certainly there to crank one deep over the Medlar outfield fence.
The true freshman is part of a youthful infusion that has big implications for the present and future of the program.