Penn State baseball opens the season at 12 Friday at US Bank Stadium against Northwestern.
When the Nittany Lions take the field, it will soon be a year since they last played March 12, 2020. That game, a 5-1 loss to Miami Ohio, was the last sporting event in Penn State that took place before all sports were canceled due to of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Despite the long layoff, head coach Rob Cooper believes Penn State is ready to return to work.
“The mindset is very good,” Cooper said. “I think they are really focused. I know they really missed playing. I know they are a very close-knit group … Finally, all that was waiting and wondering, many things that they could not control, brought them even closer, which is hard to imagine because I thought it was close group last year . ”
Penn State will begin a 44-game conference-only conference, a change from previous years. Normally, the team would start against non-conference opponents and gradually start meeting Big Ten opponents as the season went on.
The season was canceled before the conference game started last season, but in 2019, the Nittany Lions had a brutal 4-18 record against Big Ten opponents. Despite jumping straight into conference play this time around, Cooper and the team are not changing the way they prepare for the season.
“We don’t usually change the way we go about things,” Cooper said. “Our biggest thing is to make our players better, make our team better and worry about us. For us, it does not matter who we play. We try to think of playing a faceless opponent. ”
In general, Cooper said that if he puts extra emphasis on conference games, he tells his players that these games mean more than those played before, which is not “how they do things.”
The Nittany Lions got off to a 10-5 start last season before being abruptly canceled, which tied for the top ten. Although it was certainly “encouraging”, Cooper said it could be difficult to shift momentum.
“It definitely shows we were on the right track last year,” he said. “Unfortunately you go a year without playing, it’s hard to build any kind of driving force from it.”
Despite Penn State’s strong start last season, there are still many ways to improve. Cooper mentioned the defense in particular as something that needed to be improved, and noted that the team did not play up to its standard last year.
When it comes to winning baseball games, there is one thing in particular, Cooper emphasizes: boring baseball.
“Boring baseball wins,” Cooper said. “Making vanilla games, making routine games, taking care of baseball, throwing a strike, not chasing a really bad pitch, turning over a double game … That’s what we need to do. Dominate boring baseball.”
No matter what happens this weekend, Cooper knows it’s just the start of a long season that requires a lot more work to do.
“I think they’re just happy,” he said. “I think what we just have to keep in mind as a group, and as their coach, is that this is our first game. We had a lot to do to get better and work. ”