Baseball tryouts for State College start with a combine developed by a New York Yankees scout as the Little Lions’ coaches work to figure out their roster.
The combine tests for power and speed through a shuttle run and medicine ball toss, and measures velocity off the mound and ball exit speed off the bat. The combine scores help State College coach Troy Allen identify the freshmen who can handle varsity competition right away with his plan for elevating the program in mind.
Allen aimed to find the right mix of youth and experience to make strides toward building a program that can consistently compete in the Mid Penn Conference and for state championships this season. The coach said the Little Lions will benefit from having three- and four-year starters on the roster in the future.
“That’s where you get to make long runs in the playoffs,” Allen said, noting they’ll improve after each year facing top competition.
The Little Lions (11-10) are set to continue this year’s playoff run when they take on District 7 runner-up North Allegheny in the first round of the PIAA Class 6A tournament at 4 p.m. Monday at Bald Eagle Area. While seniors have led the way for State College, Allen has also been pleased with the play of his young players, including a pair of starters in sophomore catcher Tyson Cooper and freshman third baseman Kevin Karstetter.
“I’m very happy with the ones that I have brought up so far,” Allen said.
Cooper smiled as he recalled his first varsity start last year. Cooper’s mind raced with senior Bailey Ishler on the mound against Red Land. Allen needed to tell his freshman catcher to calm down.
“I think in the first inning I had three passed balls,” Cooper said.
Allen remembers Cooper’s blocking and receiving abilities being “raw” early last year, but the coach said the catcher’s IQ was better than college players. Cooper, the son of Penn State baseball coach Rob Cooper, developed throughout the season and became a different player by the end of the year. At times as a freshman, he worried and overthought with runners on base. In the team’s final game last year, Allen saw his growth when he gunned down Mifflin County star Isaiah Kearns on the base paths.
“Isaiah Kearns can fly,” Allen said.
Kearns graduated and headed to West Virginia to continue his career, while Cooper worked to get stronger heading into his sophomore season at State College.
Early this season, Cooper’s father asked Allen for an honest assessment of his son. The State College coach said he saw his growth, but noted he’s still a sophomore. Two weeks ago, with Cooper blocking everything behind the plate and hitting balls hard, Allen sent the Penn State coach an email with his thoughts.
“He’s a premier catch defensively, and with a little bit of strength, he’s going to be doing real damage at the plate,” Allen said. “I would venture to say the ball probably comes off his bat harder than anybody we have.
“He’s made himself quite the player, that’s for sure.”
Cooper is hitting .296 with a team-high five doubles and 11 RBIs going into Monday’s state playoff game. He’s been calm and in control at catcher while playing with confidence in his abilities.
“I think I’m the best player on the field every time I go out there,” Cooper said.
Karstetter thought he lost his spot with his performance against Red Land in late April.
Karstetter committed two throwing errors in one inning during that game, but he received a boost when senior shortstop Gavin Schaefer-Hood came over, put his arm around him and told the freshman to keep his head up.
“I think after that I kind of calmed down,” Karstetter said.
Karstetter started tryouts with the JV team, but Allen quickly knew the freshman would be playing varsity this spring. Karstetter earned the No. 2 score in the combine on the varsity list with a 76 — Allen said a high score for a pro prospect is in the 85-86 range. Allen recognized his baseball skills, too, as the first three balls he hit during batting practice carried to the fence.
“I can watch a (batting practice) round or I can watch somebody take infield, and I can tell you in three seconds whether they’re a player,” Allen said, snapping his fingers.
Karstetter fit the bill and came through for the Little Lions. The third baseman showed off his range defensively while hitting .340, scoring 11 runs and driving in seven runs this season. Cooper said Karstetter didn’t look like a freshman as he hit against some of the top pitchers in the Mid Penn.
“I knew he was that good when he came up this year,” Cooper said. “It’s been fun watching him prove to everybody else that he’s good.”
Karstetter was ready to compete every day at practice, and he got to know the seniors throughout the season. They welcomed him with open arms and helped him maintain his confidence. He didn’t think about being a freshman when he was on the field, either.
“I was just playing like everybody else and trying to help the team win,” Karstetter said.
Allen knows his decisions aren’t popular with everyone, but he has the numbers from the combine to show how he builds his roster.
He knows pitchers need to throw in the mid-80s to compete in the Mid Penn. He trusts the numbers and his ability to identify talent. So even if playing freshmen upsets parents, the coach said, nobody can dispute that they belong on the team.
Cooper and Karstetter both played from the start of their careers — and they’re both making a difference heading into the PIAA tournament. They’ve been part of two sharp performances in postseason play in the Little Lions’ wins in the District 6 title game and PIAA subregional game.
“The last two games, they have been absolutely phenomenal,” Allen said. “Those two efforts win the Mid Penn.”
The coach believes players who have seen Mid Penn pitching for three or four years will lead to chances at league and state titles, too. It’s part of his plan for the program, and Allen feels the Little Lions are headed in the right direction.
“This year, we were really ecstatic about how it played out,” Allen said.