After two years of building up the program, Rob Cooper guided Penn State to a 28-27 record in 2016, a winning season which included a 12-12 mark in the Big Ten. The postseason eluded the Nittany Lions as the tiebreaker to break a three-team tie for eighth place between Illinois, Iowa and Penn State went to the Hawkeyes. But as Penn State’s NCAA Tournament drought approached driving age, there was reason to look to the future with optimism. Since then, Penn State has finished last in the Big Ten in consecutive seasons, winning just 33 games in the process. Outsiders may look to Cooper’s team in State College and, based on recent history, not expect the Nittany Lions to make much noise. But the displeasure experienced in 2018 may yield positive results, as PSU heads into 2019 with a sizable sophomore class looking to lessons learned during struggles into foundations of success and take a step forward.
Head coach: Rob Cooper, sixth season, 97-190
Last conference championship: 1996
Last NCAA Tournament: 2000 Austin Super Regional
2018 in review
Record: 15-34 overall, 3-21 in the Big Ten; 13th
At the plate: .233 AVG, .332 OBP, .342 SLG, 79 2B, 17 3B, 21 HR, 47-60 SB-ATT
On the mound: 5.53 ERA, 421.2 IP, 231 BB, 339 SO, .272 BAA
In the field: .960 FLD, 26 double plays, 20 passed balls, 48 SBA, 19 CS
Key losses: OF Braxton Giavedoni (.247 AVG/.292 OBP/.382 SLG), RHP Justin Hagenman (3-7, 4.60, 78.1 IP), LHP Taylor Lehman (2-7, 5.36, 47.0)
Key returners: Soph. LHP Dante Biasi (3-6, 5.20, 62.1), Soph. RHP Bailey Dees (1-2, 5.14, 28.0), Soph. DH Parker Hendershot (.283/.379/.363), Jr. 3B Connor Klemann (.234/.343/.345, 10 XBH) Soph. RHP Mason Mellott (0-1, 4 saves, 3.18, 34.0), Sr. C Ryan Sloniger (.303/.404/.494, 13 2B)
Key newcomers: Fr. LHP Hutch Gagnon, Fr. OF/INF Ryan Ford, Jr. INF Gavin Homer, Jr. C Jacob Padilla, Fr. LHP Kyle Shingledecker, Fr. INF Justin Williams
Composition by class (eligibility-wise): Freshman (8), Sophomores (15), Juniors (6), Seniors (6)
What to expect in 2019
There are two ways to view the state of the Penn State program entering 2019. The first, seeing the glass as half-empty, would be that every team but Northwestern won as many Big Ten games in 2018 as Penn State has combined between the 2017-2018 seasons, seven. A 4-20 conference season followed by a 3-21 campaign makes for the lowest two-year Big Ten win total since Indiana won seven conference games between the 1981-2 seasons. But even then, the Hoosiers played only 30 Big Ten games, opposed to Penn State’s 48. But enough of the negative. Viewing a three-win season in lens of the glass being half-full would reveals the only team of the last 40 years with a worst winning percentage in Big Ten games than Penn State’s .125 clip in 2018 was Purdue in 2016. Just three years ago, Purdue went 2-22 in Big Ten play for an .083 winning percentage. Where many outside West Lafayette wrote off Purdue for the near future following the 2016 season, first-year head coach Mark Wasikowski guided Purdue to a 29-27 season. Breaking even in Big Ten play at 12-12 Purdue shocked all by finishing eighth and earning a spot in the Big Ten Tournament.
That 2017 Boilermaker team wasn’t all that unlike what the 2019 Nittany Lions may be. Where Purdue had a strong sophomore class, led by Nick Dalesandro, Jackson McGowan and Gareth Stroh, so too does Penn State, with the likes of Bailey Dees, Parker Hendershot and Mason Mellott. A third-year pitcher, Tanner Andrews spearheaded the rotation. Can Penn State’s Dante Biasi be that guy for them? A few transfers from junior college helped set the mentality while providing much needed production, with freshmen sprinkled up the middle. The 2019 PSU team can check those boxes, too.
Yes, times have been tough in State College. But history has shown things can change in a hurry in the Big Ten. Penn State will need to hit better, throw more strikes and field better. But with the shear volume of innings pitched, trips to the plate, balls fielded and thrown by a freshman last year, there’s the opportunity for Penn State to take a big step forward. It’s too be seen just how big that step is, and if it gets the program back on track and trending up in the same way Cooper’s first three years unfolded.
At the plate and in the field
There’s no where to go but up for the Penn State bats. A .233 team batting average ranked last in the Big Ten, .010 points behind the closest team, Maryland. Only Indiana struck out more times than the Nittany Lions’ 451 punchouts, but Indiana’s 463 total came in 10 more games. PSU finished next to last in on-base percentage and slugging, with 10 teams hitting more than the 21 home runs the clubs produced. Through it all, one player had a banner year, and forced his name into being considered one of the Big Ten’s best.
Serving as Penn State’s primary catcher, Ryan Sloniger led Penn State with a .306 average, the line Nittany Lion regular to bat at least .300, with 13 doubles, two triples an five home runs. Adding a .404 on-base percentage and .494 slugging mark, Sloniger looked little like the player he was the prior season. As a sophomore, the Punxsutawney, Penn., native batted .215 with four doubles, two triples and one home run, posting a .613 OPS. Heading into his senior season, Sloniger will be looked upon as Penn State’s offensive leader. Although there might be a position change.
With the addition of transfer Jacob Padilla, from Murray State College, and Penn State coaches seeing growth in Shea Sbranti, multiple players will take their spot behind the plate. When Sloniger is not suited up behind the plate, he will be at first base, looking to provide PSU with the necessary offense at a position which is expected to provide a little thump in the middle of a Big Ten lineup. Like Padilla, transferring from a junior college, Gavin Homer from Kellogg Community College, will be asked to provide a good glove and capable bat, as he takes on second base for Cooper.
The left side of the infield will have familiar faces with senior Conlin Hughes and redshirt-junior Connor Klemann returning to shortstop and third base respectively. Where Sloniger took a step forward in 2018, it was a step backward for Hughes. In 2017, Hughes batted .255 with nine doubles, three triples and four home runs, adding seven stolen bases. Hughes’ average dipped to .189 in 2018, recording six doubles, one triple and no home runs. Rebounding from an injury which limited him to 10 games in 2017, Klemann batted .234 with 10 extra-base hits. As a freshman, Klemann batted .260 over 28 games, lending belief there’s more in the third baseman a full year removed from a season-ending injury.
The first of several important sophomores, Parker Hendershot looks to build off of a strong debut season and fortify the DH spot in the PSU lineup. Appearing in 35 games, Hendershot batted .283 with six doubles and a home run, and drew 16 walks to sport a .379 on-base percentage. Those numbers would be good for classmate Curtis Robison to match, as he fills out a corner outfield spot in year two for the Nittany Lions. Although he batted .179 over 42 games, Robison collected eight doubles, a triple and two home runs as a freshman.
Penn State’s most consistent offensive force over the last two years, Bowersox used nine doubles and four triples to bat .276 last year. In 2017, over 33 games the right-handed hitter batted .333 with seven doubles and three home runs. Junior outfielder Mason Nadeau rounds out he returning players who saw the bulk of their time in the outfield last year. Like Bowersox, Nadeau’s 2017 season was better than his 2018 go. Last year, Nadeau’s average plunged to .202, after beginning his career in State College with a .308 average. Sbranti may see time in the outfield, as well as freshmen Ryan Ford and Justin Williams, with the veteran of the group being senior Jordan Bowersox.
Throughout the lineup, there are players who have shown they can be solid contributors for Penn State. What’s held the team back is rarely have those good years aligned. Where Sloniger stepped forward in 2018, several players regressed. Now, if Solinger maintains the high level of play he established last year, Bowersox, Hughes and Nadeau hit at their 2017 clip, Klemann shows the ability he did as a freshman before injuries set him back in 2017 and Hendershot and Robison show growth in their second year as DI athletes, last year’s .233 team average will fill look a distant memory. That may seem like a lot of ifs, but to even be an if the possibility has to be there, and past performances have indicated they are there for Cooper and Penn State.
On the mound
The outlook isn’t as clear on the mound for Penn State where youth is found in abundance. The Nittany Lions will need to replace Friday starter Justin Hagenman and the 76 strikeouts he recorded over 78.1 innings. Also gone are Taylor Lehman and Marko Borichich, two pitchers who flashed signs of promise but never put it all together, but still combined to pitch 75.1 innings, as Lehman made 10 starts and Borichich appeared in 21 games out of the bullpen.
With 15 sophomores on the team, second-year players will have a big say in Penn State’s success in 2018. They will especially do so on the mound. Sophomores Dante Biasi and Bailey Dees will lead the rotation, with Dees making a significant jump according to Cooper, as he gets ready for a bigger role. Biasi logged 62.1 innings over 13 starts and struck out 51 batters to 36 walks. He may not have the mid-to-upper-90s fastball his older brother Sal Biasi brought to the Penn State rotation two years ago, when he struck out 88 batters in 72.1 innings, but Biasi was serviceable in his first year on the mound after Tommy John surgery. As he made four starts and appeared in 12 games, it was Dees who wowed with strikeouts, punching out 36 in 28 innings. Dees did walk 16 and surrender 31 hits, but the stuff is there to be a big time arm, it’s a matter of control and developing a greater sense of pitchability.
A third sophomore, Conor Larkin, looks to be a key contributor in the bullpen, following 18 relief appearances last year, compiling a 5.79 ERA. In 37.1 innings, Larkin was tagged for 43 hits, but did record 38 strikeouts to 17 walks. Classmate Mason Mellott recorded four saves as his 3.18 ERA led all pitchers, contributing 34 innings over 24 relief outings. Kyle Virbitsky, yet another sophomore, pitched to a 5.40 ERA in 21.2 innings, with 14 of his 15 appearances coming as a reliever. Fourth-year junior Eric Mock started the season at the back of the Penn State bullpen, and finished with three saves over 31.2 innings and a 5.97 ERA.
For newcomers, Cooper likes the promise left-handed freshmen Tyler Shingledecker and Hutch Gagnon have shown leading up to the season and expect the ball to be in their hands early and often.
There are a few key innings that need filled and throughout the pitching staff there isn’t a lot of history for the players Penn State will rely on on the mound. But there are a lot of players that were thrown to the fire early, players that arrived on campus together and look to turn the tide together, who figure to be battle tested, with little that can come there way in 2018 to throw them off. If a few players take a step forward in their second season, there may be enough in the rotation and in relief for the pitchers to do their part, and take some pressure off the bats so the best of their abilities come out and get the ship turned for Penn State.
Five things to watch
Sloniger building off of last year and becoming one of the Big Ten’s top bats.
Do Hughes, Bowersox and Nadeau return to 2017 form.
Can Mellott and Mock form to 1-2 punch at the back of the bullpen.
Which sophomore in the rotation takes a step forward.
Does Cooper rotate catchers or does someone make the position theirs through production.
One weekend to circle
March 1-3 vs. Duke. After playing in a super regional and ending the season with a top 10 ranking, picked to be one of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s best teams, Penn State’s neutral site series against the Blue Devils will be a great barometer of progress. The first two series of the season, three games against Monmouth and four games against Fairfield, all played in Cary, N.C, should give Penn State the ability to head into March with a winning record. For a young team, success in the opening weekends are critical, creating confidence by seeing the offseason efforts pay dividends is a must. In taking on Duke, Penn State will see first hand what a regional club looks like and where they have to go to become one themselves. If Biasi, Mellott, Mock and Dees can put together quality outings against a potential top 25 team, or Hendershot, Sloniger or Ford run into one as Duke features one of the country’s best pitchers in left-hander Graeme Stinson. A strong showing against Duke can quickly parlay into bigger things, as another good non-conference series at Central Florida follows, before a series against UMass-Lowell concludes the pre-Big Ten slate where date with Minnesota starts Big Ten play.