UNIVERSITY PARK — An unfamiliar environment and new faces usually challenge incoming freshmen at universities across the country.
But at Penn State, left fielder James Coates finds his Nittany Lion outfield spot, and campus, as a second home.
“Coming up ever since I was a little kid for the football games, just being around this environment and feeling the tradition and pride here, has always been a huge part of my life,” he said.
Coates is the son of former Penn State football player Jim Coates, a return specialist and wide receiver from 1984-87 under Joe Paterno, made a career 14 receptions for 129 yards and
two touchdowns, 89 punt returns for 569 yards and 52 kickoff returns for 1,138 yards for the Lions.
James Coates said he looks up to his father for support and advice and as a role model.
But he said his dad never pressured him to follow in his footsteps.
“My dad has pushed me my entire career to do everything better and always work harder,” Coates said. “I had other offers on the table and he never said you have to go to Penn State. He said go where you’re going to be happy and do what you want.”
Now, for Jim Coates, seeing his son play baseball at Penn State is a special thing to witness.
“The first time I came to see them play was when they scrimmaged Temple in the fall,” Jim Coates said in a phone call. “That was the first I saw him in a Penn State uniform, and that moment was a proud moment for me to see him wearing his school colors like I did.”
On the baseball diamond, the Girard, Ohio, native has impressed.
In the opening weekend series against East Tennessee State in mid-February, Coates went 5- for-10, with two RBIs and two stolen bases. Since then, Coates has tapered off, hitting .259 with 6 RBIs in 16 games.
That has not deterred the Penn State coaching staff, which had high expectations for Coates coming into the season.
“I got a chance to see him play a bunch in high school and all fall, so I don’t know if we are surprised by it because we had big expectations coming into the spring of him, and I think he’s living up to those,” assistant coach Eric Folmar said. “He’s played extremely well and he’s a mature kid and works hard.”
It’s no easy task for a freshman to secure a starting left field spot. Their experience is a lot different than that of players who have been on the team for a few years, and playing college and high school ball is completely different.
Coates’ play in the fall and his adjustment to the college game in the spring has been seamless, and he is reaping the benefits.
Redshirt junior center fielder Steve Snyder said he knew right away that Coates has something special.
“He’s got speed definitely, one of the faster kids on the team,” Snyder said. “He shows some pop at bat, he’s consistent and gets hits with runners in scoring position.”
At John F. Kennedy High School (, Coates was seen as more of a power hitter. Since arriving in Happy Valley his role has changed.
“My role is to set the table, get things started and get on base,” Coates said. “That’s the role I’ve had to take. I like that role because my speed has always been an asset. I think that I’m in a good position to do what I do best, getting on base and scoring.”
The Nittany Lions are 5-11. Their home opener on Wednesday against Akron was pstponed because of the weather.
They open their Big Ten season on the road Friday against Indiana.
With the changes in the schedule, Penn State’s first home game is slated for March 27 against Pittsburgh at 6:05 p.m. at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.
Tom Zulewski is a Penn State journalism student.