Marc Skelton, the baseball coach for R. Nelson Snider High School in Fort Wayne, Ind., was in a predicament.
In the sectional semifinals, his starting pitcher was gassed and the reliever was Snider’s shortstop, leaving a gap in the middle of the infield.
Skelton had to throw in a freshman at shortstop and hope nothing went wrong.
The coach was pleasantly surprised. The young middle infielder corralled a hard-hit grounder on the first pitch and tagged second base to end the inning.
“It was the first time he played shortstop at the varsity level,” Skelton recalled, “and he handled it calm, cool and collected.”
It was then, on May 31, 2014, that he knew Mac Hippenhammer — who signed with the Penn State football team last week — was special.
As a sophomore and junior, Hippenhammer starred on the diamond (four steals away from setting career program record) and gridiron (14 total touchdowns last season) for R. Nelson Snider, dominating as a two-sport athlete. Soon enough, he'll try his hand at doing the same at Penn State.
We didn’t just meet with him to help football out. We met with him because he can help baseball out.
Rob Cooper, Penn State baseball coach
Hippenhammer, a three-star wide receiver and the No. 5 prospect from Indiana according to 247 Sports, rejected Notre Dame's late interest and stuck with Penn State on National Signing Day.
That wasn’t much of a shocker — but the news that he’d not only play football for Penn State, but also baseball, was a surprise to many.
However, for those who know Hippenhammer, the move was expected.
Skelton said from the start of Hippenhammer’s recruitment, the 6-foot-1, 170-pounder always wanted to play both football and baseball at the next level.
“He seemed set on it pretty much from the get-go,” Skelton said. “I know schools would limit themselves off his list if they weren’t willing to do both.”
James Franklin and the Nittany Lions knew early on that if they wanted Hippenhammer, baseball was going to be in the picture. So not only was Franklin and his staff in on the prospect’s recruitment, but Penn State baseball coach Rob Cooper was also involved.
When Hippenhammer was on campus for a visit, he had a one-on-one meeting with Cooper to discuss the possibility of playing in Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.
“In that small period of time, it was just like when we recruit any other baseball player in our program,” Cooper said. “We didn’t just meet with him to help football out. We met with him because he can help baseball out. He can be an impact player for us down the road.”
Hippenhammer’s 2016 baseball statistics tell the tale of a multi-threat ballplayer. He hit third in the Cougars’ batting order last season, leading the team with a .438 batting average while boasting a .533 on-base percentage.
He was a nuisance on the basepaths, too, tallying 25 stolen bases as a junior, five away from tying R. Nelson Snider’s single-season record.
“He’s smooth,” said Kurt Tippmann, Hippenhammer’s high school football coach. “His speed on the baseball field is even more accentuated than it is on the football field. ... He gets on base and just goes.”
As much as Tippmann admired Hippenhammer on the ballfield, he enjoyed having him as a pass-catcher, too. As a senior, the wideout hauled in 46 catches for 611 yards and seven touchdowns.
A healthy chunk of that production came because of his agility.
“Maybe not straight-away track speed, but it’s more of his quickness,” Tippmann said. “His ability to get in and out of a cut. His ability to accelerate in a small distance. I mean, he’s top speed in two steps. He just has that acceleration that not everybody has.”
Franklin and his staff are hoping that translates to the college level. The Nittany Lions’ head coach identified Hippenhammer as a possible kick returner next season, in addition to receiver.
And even though Hippenhammer is poised to be a future favorite for “Cooper’s Town,” the Penn State baseball student section, it’s been made clear by both Cooper and Franklin that football will be emphasized.
“That’s something selfishly as a football coach, I want him to play football,” Franklin said. “But if a young man like that has an interest and has the talent — and I love coach Coop. That’s my guy, so we’re going to work together.
“We’re going to support him every step of the way. We’ll see what happens.”
As for how Hippenhammer will juggle both sports, some see it as an impossible feat; being a Division-I athlete is hard enough with academics and social life to tend to. But one of the people who knows Hippenhammer best believes playing football and baseball for the Nittany Lions won’t be an issue.
“It seems like he never has any downtime anyway. He’s involved with everything,” Skelton said with a laugh. “He personally will be able to handle every bit of it if he wishes.”