Sixth-year coach Rob Cooper already has a lot on his plate trying to manage a baseball team in a tough Big Ten Conference while also taking care of his family. Add being a full-time scout to that list.
While some may think recruiting doesn’t require a ton of time, it’s a huge ingredient in building a successful college baseball program and is truly a never-ending deal.
Cooper knows this from his valuable experience gained from spending a majority of his life around the game. After playing baseball at Sacramento City College, a junior college, and transferring to the University of Miami, he worked as a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1990-1992.
He served as Wright State’s coach for nine years, where he confessed to having a roster of 50 percent junior college transfer players at times. But according to Cooper, it’s not about choosing between a JUCO player and an incoming freshman.
“It’s not about junior college over high school, the truth is you always are looking and evaluating your team,” Cooper said.
He also admitted how time-consuming it can be trying to find the right players and what attributes he looks for in the ones he scouts.
“It’s a 12-month, 365-day a year process,” Cooper said. “Unfortunately it’s about 70 percent of our job because you got to recruit, you got to have good players, you got to make sure you’re bringing in the right fit, the right character, and do they fit into what you’re doing as a baseball program?”
Luckily for the Nittany Lions, they found two well-rounded athletes with the dedication and work ethic to fit right in with what Penn State’s baseball program entails in Gavin Homer and Jacob Padilla.
The team has six total transfers on the roster — five currently in their first year in the program with the exception of catcher Shea Sbranti, who transferred from San Joaquin Delta College in the summer of 2017 and enjoyed a solid first season last year.
Homer in particular has been steadily improving at the plate, hitting .259 on the season, and has found a ton of success recently, recording a hit in 11 of his past 14 games. But it shouldn’t come as a shock considering the junior batted .389 with 42 RBIs as a sophomore attending Kellogg Community College and .286 with 19 stolen bases as a freshman at McHenry County College.
Cooper recalls the only reason he heard of Homer was by watching his junior college highlights on a YouTube video, knowing right away that Homer had a knack for swinging the bat.
“It was so ‘in your face’ that he loved to play baseball and I was like ‘I want that kid,’” Cooper said. “He's been everything we thought he would be and more.”
As a Michigan native growing up in the Midwest, it’s no surprise that leaving his hometown behind was challenging for Homer.
Before transferring to Penn State, he was accustomed to a different daily routine featuring less school work and more free time throughout the day.
“Schooling at junior college is a little more basic and not as rigorous, you don’t have to study as much and you can pass with decent grades,” Homer said. “But here you have to balance school, nutrition, and obviously practice and games. It’s pretty tiring; you have to pay attention to how you manage your time.”
One thing he continued to adopt while at junior college was giving 100 percent effort at all times and it’s clear he’s grateful for the situation he’s in right now.
When Homer first transferred to University Park last summer, he was very observant of his new surroundings and figured out how to fit in with the program.
“Something only junior college kids would understand is how blue collar it is down there; you're not gifted all the clothing and facilities that you have around here,” Homer said. “[I was] just trying to get familiar with the culture, the philosophy of the coaching staff, a lot of the guys that have played for them for a while.”
His commitment to learning baseball allows him to be honest with his game. Although the numbers suggest Homer’s hitting reasonably well, he understands there’s always more to his game that can he can improve on.
“I don’t really feel like I’m driving the ball so I’m just trying to find ways to put the ball in gaps whether that be foul balls or line drives, just until I can figure out how to drive it a little more,” Homer said.
Starting 33 of Penn State’s first 35 games this season, he’s already gaining valuable experience in his first year with the team and has proven to be a key contributor already.
In fact, Padilla hasn’t seen nearly the amount of playing time in his first season at Penn State after playing two years at Murray State College where he batted .375 as a sophomore.
But this coaching decision isn’t a detriment to his abilities, especially considering the amount of talent the Nittany Lions have at catcher. At the start of the season, Padilla was fighting for playing time with two seniors in defensive-stud Ryan Sloniger and recent-transfer Sbranti. Although only batting .189, Padilla’s played in each of Penn State’s five conference matchups so far because of his valuable two-way game.
His team-friendly attitude prevented any distractions in the locker room as he knows full well what the team expects from him.
“I think all three of the guys have handled it well,” Cooper said. “In the fall it was an open competition and if you remember when the season started Shea was actually the frontline guy. ‘Slony’ we already know is a frontline type guy.”
“You come in from [junior college] or you come in as a freshman and you’re expected to play your part, expect to buy into the team, buy into the program,” Padilla said. “You follow the lead and you just listen.”
There’s no doubt one of the guys he observes is Sloniger, who is notorious for being a great communicator and leader for the underclassmen on the team.
"[He has] just a different view of the game and his knowledge of it is a big influence in sharpening up my game,” Padilla said. “The dude just knows the game. Anything I can pick up from him really helps.”