Mac Hippenhammer started shaking his head before the question was even finished.
No, Penn State’s two-sport athlete has never thought about choosing one sport over another, be it football or baseball. And, no, the wideout/outfielder doesn’t anticipate settling on just one sport during his college career.
“Me, I love the challenge,” Hippenhammer said after baseball practice earlier this week. “I enjoy that. I embrace long bus rides home on a Sunday night and I got a test the next day. I love challenges like that.”
Hippenhammer spoke sincerely and with a smile. He wants to test himself in everything, and he sees splitting his time between the classroom, the diamond and the gridiron as one of the best ways to do that.
His desire has never been in question — and he’s put any doubts about his athleticism to rest this season. So far this spring, while concentrating solely on baseball, the redshirt freshman has earned a starting role in right field and boasts the third-best batting average on the team at .264. In the fall, with a crowded receiver room, Hippenhammer cracked the football lineup, played in 12 games and finished with 103 receiving yards and a touchdown.
“He’s Bo Jackson for us,” football coach James Franklin said in March.
Added baseball coach Rob Cooper: “To see the type of season he’s having, it’s pretty impressive.”
This is almost always how Hippenhammer has wanted it. He always carried a love for football, but he flirted with baseball only when his father nudged him toward it as a kid. At first, he wasn’t a fan. But then, when he started laying down bunt after bunt and nobody could catch him, his success and love affair for the two sports began.
And it never stopped.
“That’s always how I’ve been,” Hippehammer said. “I’ve always just been quiet and gone about my business and competed. I think a lot of my friends can tell you I’m a competitor, and that’s what I like to do.”
Hippenhammer’s two coaches — Franklin and Cooper — both agreed he should focus on one sport each season so his academics don’t suffer. Balancing the two sports last spring, putting on cleats in the morning and trading them for spikes in afternoon, proved to be tricky. But solely focusing on baseball this season has paid dividends.
With a crowded infield at Penn State, Hippenhammer was moved to outfield at an unfamiliar role. He doesn’t always take the most direct route to balls in right field and he’s committed two errors, but he quickly became an everyday starter who’s wowed his teammates at several points this season.
Against Maryland, he hit a screamer down the first-base line and, while the Terrapins weren’t sure whether it stayed fair, Hippenhammer was already rounding first. He pulled off a triple on a play some might barely double. Against Indiana, on a deep fly heading to the gap, Hippenhammer sprinted from off-screen on the BTN telecast and made an over-the-shoulder catch after smacking into the wall. He hasn’t committed an error in a month.
“The biggest thing about Mac is he’s completely unselfish; he wants to do whatever he can to help the team,” Cooper said. “I do believe if we had time to really work on his infield skills, I think he could be an elite shortstop. I really do.”
On the football field, Hippenhammer uses that same speed and motor to outwork defenders as a 5-foot-11, 177-pound athlete. Last season, he split three Illinois defenders for a 44-yard gain that came up 1 yard shy of the end zone. And his first career catch came against Pitt on an 11-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter — by Trace McSorley.
“It’s incredible what he’s doing,” McSorley said back then. “His athletic ability is through the roof.”
Hippenhammer knows his time on the baseball field isn’t going to directly help him get on the football field. But when the baseball season officially ends May 18, he plans to start catching passes from quarterback Sean Clifford the next day.
When he’s on the baseball team, he’s only worrying about baseball. But, when baseball is over, he said it’s back to being all about football.
“This year, I just told myself to control what I can control,” Hippenhammer said. “And when I’m back to the football team, all I’m going to do is work at it and, once I do that, I think everything will be all right.”
If everything goes according to plan, the soon-to-be redshirt sophomore won’t just stop at becoming a two-sport starter at Penn State. He wants an opportunity at the next level in both sports.
Ten minutes after the Arizona Cardinals drafted Kyler Murray No. 1 overall in the 2019 NFL draft — after he was picked by the Oakland Athletics at No. 9 overall in the 2018 MLB draft — Hippenhammer’s baseball coach felt his phone vibrate with a message from his star outfielder.
I want to be this guy. I want to be a guy that can get better at his game, get drafted in baseball and be an impact football player and get drafted there.
“And, with his work ethic and how much he cares, I’m not going to put it past him,” Cooper added. “I’m not.”