PHILADELPHIA – W. Joseph Blood Head Coach of Baseball John Cole recently took time out of scouting and preparation for his squad’s season-opening trip to North Carolina to talk about his 2009 team’s makeup and the direction the program is heading as Cole enters his fourth season as skipper of Penn’s nine.
As the team stretched and prepared for one of its final practices before heading south for Opening Day, Cole gauged his team’s energy level.
“We are just excited to go out and compete,” he said. “Indoor practices have gone as well as they can go. The players did a good job being mentally prepared every day. Now, we are ready and looking forward to going out and lining up against an opponent and seeing what we have.”
What exactly Cole has may not be determined after only four games against host Davidson, Georgetown and Cincinnati this weekend. In fact, the true makeup of this team may not be defined until it returns from its Spring Break trip to Florida in two weeks. That is not an unusual situation, as all baseball clubs go through a process of defining roles and solidifying lineups – and that is exactly what early-season outings are for. What is different this season for Cole’s team is that the team heads out with an idea of what those roles could look like – especially on the pitching staff.
“For the first time since I have been here, we have a pretty good idea of which guys should slide into specific spots,” he said. “While the rotation isn’t solid yet, there are pieces. Todd Roth is our anchor. Robbie Seymour has been pitching well in preseason and will be looked towards to step up this season. Freshman Vince Voiro has put himself in the mix for a number two or three spot in the rotation. Paul Cusick and Reid Terry are also pitching well enough to earn innings.”
The solidifying of spots isn’t limited to the starting rotation, as Cole has appeared to have settled on the arms at the back end of the staff.
“William Gordon and Tom Grandieri are in position to be our late-inning guys,” he said. “The key for them will be to come in and throw strikes. If they do that, they will succeed. In the middle innings, we are looking at our freshmen to come in and establish themselves.”
On the offensive side, Cole is hoping to implement a style of play where his team is the aggressor. At the same time, he knows that certain things have to happen in order for that to happen.
“At the core, we are looking to put players in a position to produce,” he said. “We do not have a real deep group of guys who can bang it, so we will need to apply pressure at the top and bottom of the lineup. Those guys are absolutely critical to our success. We need quality at-bats from them and for those ABs to result in men on base.”
With those runners on base, Cole is hoping to put two things in motion – strategy and, in turn, his baserunners.
“If we get guys on early in the game, we can coach and play the strategy game,” he said. “The hit-and-run and run-and-hit portion of the game will allow us to open up spots on the field and create some havoc. That results in positive energy in the dugout, which then builds momentum for us.”
Cole’s vision of players clad in Red and Blue circling the bases at will reveals a bit of his mindset – and the one he is looking to impart on his team. When asked to define the style of play he wants to define Penn baseball, the fourth-year coach quickly chose four words.
“Relentlessness, preparation, toughness and resiliency are key components of the members of this team,” he said. “A player needs to be relentless in his desire to win, no matter what is thrown in front of him. If the other team scores three runs, we need to answer. Preparation alludes to both mental and physical readiness. One of two things happens to you on each play – success or failure. Are you ready to react based on the result of that play? Our guys will be.”
When talking about toughness and resiliency, Cole’s eyes grew wide, allowing his belief in the importance of these ingredients to come out.
“Toughness on the field is the ability to fight through adversity and to outcompete and outwill your opponent,” Cole said. “A player who is resilient is one who has the ability to come back after a tough at-bat, inning or even game. When you put all that in a blender, out comes the word competitor. If a team has 25 players who fit that mold, they will be successful more often than not.”
Cole then went a step further, describing another quality he wants instilled in his team.
“A team needs to be tenacious,” he said. “We want to be the intimidators when we take the field. In addition to fundamentals and skills, we have been working on bringing that edge to the park every day.”
Another aspect of his team that excites the head coach is its versatility. Two of the projected starting position players in Gordon and Grandieri are expected to share late-inning duties in the pen. Gordon has also changed his primary position, moving from third to first, and has taken fly balls in the outfield as well. Last year’s starting shortstop, All-Ivy player Dan Williams, has shifted to third base. Sophomore Will Davis is listed on the depth chart at three positions – catcher, third base and first base. Jeremy Maas, who saw time primarily as a starter in 2008, will be able to hit and pinch-run as he rehabs his arm following off-season surgery.
“In the Ivy League, you need to have the ability to change things up,” Cole said. “I feel that we have the chance to throw some different things at teams and create matchups we want as the game progresses.”
Preparation for the possibility of playing three positions in a game is just part of the mental challenge of playing Penn baseball. A look at the dugout during a game will result in a myriad of action amongst all players. Two players are seated at the coach’s side, charting pitches. Others are staring intently at the way a defense shifts in preparation for a batter, or even a specific pitch. Still more are looking over scouting reports in order to be ready in case a certain relieve comes in.
“In good clubs, it is critical that everyone is paying attention,” said Cole. “There is so much going on with every pitch. Whether it is marking a pitcher’s time from the mound to home or on his pickoff move to first, all the way to watching for tendencies in regards to defensive positioning, everyone has a role and an assignment. We need each player to be ready at all times, and keeping them involved at the level we do allows for that to happen. The strategy and mental aspect of the game, to me, is the most enjoyable part of the sport. I try to impart that on the players as well.”
Cole’s team is hoping for a perfect blend of the physical and mental this weekend as it opens its season against Georgetown Saturday at noon in Davidson, N.C.