Penn State opens its 2021 season Friday against Northwestern, 358 days since it last took the field for competitive action, and nearly two years since its last Big Ten series.
The first four games will come against Northwestern, a team the Nittany Lions haven't seen since 2018, when the Wildcats swept a three-game series.
Coach Rob Cooper said Thursday that more than anything, the team is just ready to get back on the field for his eighth year at the helm.
“I know that our guys have been really anxious to get going,” Cooper said. “I’m excited to watch them play and do what they love — excited to get this thing teed up.”
Cooper said that despite the long absence from competition, he likes the mindset and focus the team has demonstrated heading into its first series of 2021 — including the bond the group has formed throughout the adversity.
“I think that finally all that waiting, wonder and a lot of things that they couldn’t control brought people closer,” Cooper said. “Hard to imagine, because I thought it was a close group last year.”
The club returns nearly every player from 2020 thanks to an NCAA decision that granted an extra year of eligibility for all spring-sport athletes.
Cooper acknowledged the fact that despite the experience on the team, he and the coaching staff need to be patient and remember that it’s still the first game and there’s a lot to do to get better.
The skipper then mentioned that while the team was unable to have a normal offseason of preparation, the later start to the season has worked in the Nittany Lions’ favor — especially from a pitching perspective.
“We needed that extra time to really get our kids up to speed and to get freshmen to understand how we do things,” Cooper said. “From a plain pitching standpoint, I think a lot of [Big Ten teams] will have guys that are a little bit farther ahead and a little bit more stretched out. Knock on wood, but I think the pitching is one of our strengths.”
Such was the case for Cooper’s squad in 2020, as the team’s pitchers led the Big Ten in ERA and finished sixth in total strikeouts.
The Nittany Lions announced their starters for the four-game series Wednesday, headlined by juniors Bailey Dees, Conor Larkin and Kyle Virbitsky. True freshman Jaden Henline will round out the rotation’s probable starters.
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The addition of a first-year player to the starting rotation on such a veteran roster may come as a surprise to many, but Cooper said Henline is mature for a freshman and doesn’t get easily rattled.
“He was a consistent performer pretty much from the time he got here until now, so he was a guy we felt deserved to get the baseball,” Cooper said. “He’s pitched for a state championship team, so he’s used to winning.
“We’re excited for what he brings to the table, and I don’t think any of us think he’s anywhere close to what he’s going to be when it’s all said and done.”
As for other freshmen in the program, Cooper isn’t exactly sure what to expect for them. He said it’s a “tough question” because of the turbulent offseason the program has had.
Additionally, without the prospect of weekday games and nonconference series, he said it’s going to be much more difficult for guys to slot into a role like Johnny Piacentino did in 2020, who got a midweek opportunity and turned it into a starting spot.
Cooper also mentioned that some players who have a lot of experience might see some time outside of the lineup if they struggle.
“For me, it’s more of us just trying to say ‘this is how we’re going to go out today trying to win this game,’” Cooper said. “We’re going to put these guys out on the field and go from there.”
Cooper might not be sure of who will be rotated into the lineup during the season, but he was confident of one thing — Dees taking the rubber for Friday’s season opener.
“He’s made unbelievable jumps and his work ethic is off the charts,” Cooper said. “I’m just so proud of him. This is a kid who came in with a lot of potential and has really sacrificed a lot and worked hard.”
Cooper had high praise for Northwestern’s program and coach Spencer Allen, but he felt confident in his team’s ability as long as they played “boring baseball.”
“If we can just play dominant fundamental baseball, then I think we’re going to be in a position to do some good things.”