Rob Cooper looked to the two players sitting beside him to illustrate his point at Penn State’s spring sports media day earlier this week.
If the Nittany Lion baseball coach wants pitcher Jack Anderson to execute a slider, it’s something they have to practice. And if he wants second baseman Taylor Skerpon to lay down a bunt, it’s a part of practice.
He’s taking the same approach in trying to re-frame failure as an opportunity to learn and get better after an up-and-down 2014 season.
Penn State won 12 of 14 games during a stretch and started 5-1 in the Big Ten before losing 18 of its final 19 games in Cooper’s first season. The Nittany Lions spent the offseason working on different ways to deal with the downs they’ll inevitably face again this year.
“If I’m going to talk about being strong mentally and having a good mental game,” Cooper said Monday at Pegula Ice Arena, “we have to practice that and talk about it so that it becomes part of who we are.”
Penn State opens its season at Elon at 4 p.m. Friday. Left-hander Nick Hedge will get the start for the Nittany Lions after going 2-5 with a 6.21 ERA last season.
Penn State finishes the three-game series with a doubleheader Saturday.
Cooper said he saw progress in 2014, but his players now need to figure out how to handle winning and the increased expectations that come with it. Penn State’s 5-1 start in conference play was its best since 2001.
The Nittany Lions went on to drop their final 17 Big Ten games and finished 18-32. The players have learned from that experience.
“We really talk about controlling what we can control and making the most out of those opportunities,” Skerpon said. “So I think taking that collective mindset as a team into each and every game will allow us to be able to handle all those ups and downs and successes.”
Penn State must replace center fielder Steve Snyder, who led the team with a .321 batting average and scored a team-high 28 runs. Cooper said James Coates and Ryan Richter will get the majority of the time in center field.
Coates was second on the team with a .277 batting average and started 38 games last season. Richter has moved from the infield to the outfield.
Greg Guers, who led the team with 27 RBIs a year ago, will also see more time in the outfield.
Penn State returns starting infielders in Skerpon, first baseman J.J. White and shortstop Jim Haley. They’re joined by Ole Miss transfer Christian Helsel, an Altoona grad capable of playing shortstop, second and third.
The Nittany Lion pitching staff is a young group, and a pair of freshmen will make their debuts this weekend. Pennsylvania natives Nick Distasio and Taylor Lehman are each set to start Saturday.
Distasio is a 5-foot-11 right-hander from Oley, and Lehman is a 6-foot-8 lefty from Pittsburgh.
“It’s been exciting to see them grow and learn as we go as well,” Anderson said of the younger pitchers. “And helping them get through that process has been exciting.”
Cooper is hoping to see his program grow.
The Nittany Lions are trying to achieve that goal through their mental approach. They’ve done workshops focused on that part of the game — talking about techniques like breathing exercises — something Cooper has done since he took over at Penn State.
This year, Cooper is trying to “failure-proof” his program.
“What I mean by that is it’s not the fact that we’ll never fail,” Cooper said. “Because we’re going to fail, we’re going to make mistakes but trying to get our guys to re-frame what failure is.”
Cooper wants his players to see it as a chance to learn and grow before finding success. And he’s hoping that will eliminate some of the inconsistency that defined last season.
“We haven’t faced any adversity yet,” Cooper said. “So far, I think they’re lighter mentally that way and I think they’re ready to deal with it better.”