UNIVERSITY PARK — Every Friday in the offseason, right around 4 p.m., Penn State coach Rob Cooper held hour-long meetings.
He and his players would review “Heads-up Baseball,” a book focused on developing the mental aspect of the game. They discussed it and completed a few homework assignments.
The meetings provided a glimpse into Cooper’s coaching style as he prepared for his first year leading the Nittany Lions.
“It’s really translated,” pitcher Geoff Boylston said. “And you can clearly see it with all the other guys, they’ve really been able to up their performances.”
Thirty games into this season, Penn State has already surpassed last season’s win total and is off to one of its best Big Ten starts in program history. The Nittany Lions continued their strong start Tuesday night with an 8-4 win over West Virginia (16-12) at
Medlar Field. Boylston, a redshirt junior, earned the win in his first career start, limiting the Mountaineers to three runs in 5 2/3 innings. Relievers Dakota Forsyth and Jack Anderson combined to close out the win, allowing one run on four hits.
Penn State (16-14, 4-1) has won 11 of its last 13 games. The Nittany Lions will begin a three-game series at Ohio State on Friday.
Penn State went 14-36 and 4-20 in the Big Ten last season under former coach Robbie Wine.
Cooper took over after nine years at Wright State. The Penn State players bought into Cooper’s vision for the program immediately.
“We’ve all bought in from the beginning,” said Penn State redshirt senior Steve Snyder, who went 2-for-4 with two runs and two RBIs Tuesday. “And I just think it’s really clicking right now, so from top to bottom of our lineup, all of our pitchers, they’re doing a great job, so I think everything’s just clicking, and we’re just rolling with it.”
Cooper credited the senior class for the smooth start to his tenure.
“I just told our seniors in there that this is a group of seniors that when I’m done coaching one day,” Cooper said. “And I’m gonna look back on this group and I won’t be able to fully express to them what they’ve meant to us.”
But in the same breath, he put the Nittany Lions’ hot start into perspective.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, we’re halfway through the season,” Cooper said. “The season’s not over yet and we got a lot of baseball to play.”
Still, Cooper appreciates his players’ decision to adapt to the coaching change.
It would have been easy for the seniors to resist change and approach the game as they had in the past. But as Snyder said, they trusted Cooper and bought in from the start.
And now a foundation is set for the future.
Cooper’s focus on building mental toughness played a large part in that process. The coach views the mental aspect as another skill in the game, something to practice like bunting and situational hitting.
So he held the meetings, and he talks about routines and techniques — deep breaths, finding focal points — to deal with the stress and failure that come with the game.
Boylston saw the payoff Tuesday. After allowing three runs in the first two innings, he settled in held the Mountaineers scoreless before exiting in the sixth.
“I’ve definitely experienced drastic improvement in my game as a whole ever since I started buying into the whole mental game aspect,” Boylston said. “Because for example, if you take the situation where I give up three runs in two innings last year, guarantee that’s six (runs) because I wasn’t mentally tough.”
Penn State is playing with confidence this season.
Cooper deflected all credit for the success to his players, who improved the Nittany Lions’ home record to 8-0, the best home start since winning the first eight games in 1979.
“Right now, just being around these guys, I feel like we have a chance to win,” Cooper said. “It felt like that at Purdue, it felt like that at Bucknell and obviously it’s been like that at home.”
The early turnaround is only a good start for Penn State.
But the hot streak offers a glimpse of Cooper’s vision for the program.
“The thing that’s been happening the last three weeks is that it’s the exact same approach every game,” Cooper said. “And when you start to do that, it starts becoming a culture hopefully.”