In the postseason, the playing field is even — stats, records and talent take a backseat, as determination and heart take center stage.
Penn State’s 2022 Big Ten Tournament run is a shining example of this. The Nittany Lions battled to the third round, giving some of the conference’s best all they could handle.
There weren’t high expectations for coach Rob Cooper’s team, which entered with a losing record on the season and was making its first tournament appearance since 2012.
But if there’s anything to know about the Diamond Lions, it’s that they never back away from a challenge.
As the tournament’s sixth seed, Penn State took on Iowa in the first round, looking to pull an upset over the third seed.
The blue and white did just that, stunning the Hawkeyes on the back of a two-hitter pitched by senior Tyler Shingledecker and sophomore Travis Luensmann.
In likely his last collegiate start, Shingledecker delivered a performance to remember. The 6-foot-3 southpaw struck out eight batters and allowed just four baserunners in five and two-thirds innings.
Iowa’s pitching staff came to play too, holding the Nittany Lions to two runs entering the sixth inning. With a one-run lead far from comfortable, Cooper’s bunch searched for insurance runs late in the game.
With two on and two out, catcher Matt Wood stepped up to the plate. The junior only needed a single to score freshman Derek Cease from second base, but the Big Ten’s batting-average leader had other plans.
Wood broke on a full-count fastball and launched a three-run homer to right field, extending Penn State’s lead to 5-1.
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After dropping Friday’s contest to Rutgers, Penn State found itself facing elimination Saturday.
The blue and white held on for a milestone victory — not only for Cooper but for the program as a whole.
To say it’s been a long time since the Nittany Lions have seen this level of success is an understatement. Four different U.S. presidents have held office since Penn State’s last postseason victory in 2008.
With newfound confidence, the blue and white prepared for its next opponent: Rutgers.
The second-seed Scarlet Knights entered Omaha, Nebraska, as one of the conference favorites, following a program-record 41 regular-season wins.
Coach Steve Owens had his team in control through eight innings, cashing in on a career performance from starting pitcher Nathan Florence.
The Hartford transfer was money all day, dropping ten batters via strikeout and only allowing six players to reach the basepaths.
This time, though, it was Penn State’s opponent who couldn’t build a substantial lead, as it stranded 10 baserunners over the course of the contest.
Still, a 4-0 lead looked highly improbable for the blue and white to overcome given its unimpressive offense to that point.
After graduate student Cole Bartels walked to lead off the ninth, Owens opted to pull Florence in favor of redshirt sophomore Ben Gorski.
Gorski was not ready for what was to come and neither was the Penn State faithful.
The rally started slow, as the Nittany Lions used small ball to get runners aboard, with freshman Anthony Steele and sophomore Billy Gerlott earning RBIs and cutting the Rutgers lead in half.
With two runners on, outfielder Johnny Piacentino made one of the biggest plays of his career. The junior hammered a ball to deep left-center that looked like it might just escape Charles Schwab Field.
Instead, the ball banked off of the wall and into play. Piacentino sprinted for third base, while two other Nittany Lions scored.
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Just like that, the game was tied as Penn State pulled off a miraculous comeback.
Rutgers quickly scored in the 10th inning, placing Cooper’s team in another must-score situation. However, this time there was little drama as the Nittany Lions went in order, dropping their Round 2 contest — 5-4 in extra innings — in the process.
With a loss in the tournament, Penn State prepared for its next opponent with the knowledge that it needed to win out to keep its dream alive.
The blue and white was very familiar with its next foe; the two teams played just two days prior.
Iowa was back for more, this time as a more-inspired squad that knocked Purdue out of the tournament in Round 2.
Although the Nittany Lions struck first on a Josh Spiegel ground-rule double, the Hawkeyes still won in very convincing fashion.
Like in the first matchup, Iowa’s defense played strong, holding Penn State to just five hits.
This time, though, the blue and white’s defense could not maintain a high level of play, as the bullpen faltered in an 11-3 loss.
Back-to-back losses and a third-round exit certainly stung Cooper’s team, but it has a lot to hang its heads high about.
Defeating Iowa, a rich, successful Big Ten program, is cause for celebration in itself. Nearly upsetting a Rutgers team, enjoying its best season in program history, is another impressive result for the underdog Nittany Lions.
Penn State played up to its competition, showing that maybe it does belong among the Big Ten elites.