The college baseball season is a three-month roller-coaster ride, and unfortunately for Penn State New Kensington, it started with a deep drop right out of the gate.
Four days before the Lions’ trip to Florida, fourth-year coach Jim Perry was relieved of his duties.
The surprising news was a setback for a team that was sliding the final block into place to complete the program’s foundation.
“I didn’t see it coming at all, and I was dumbfounded,” said PSNK coach Dean Minerva, who took over for Perry. “I took (the job) right away. It would have been a horrible decision to abandon the kids right before Florida.”
For Minerva, a 1993 Hempfield grad who played college baseball at Cal (Pa.), the sudden promotion marked the first time he would lead a team. He’s been an assistant everywhere else.
Minerva joined Perry’s staff last season and mainly coached the catchers. Minerva has former Pitt pitcher TJ Pagan and Perry’s son, Jordan, as assistant coaches. Minerva said Pagan has brought much-needed structure and organization.
“(Pagan’s) a huge asset,” Minerva said. “He has condition programs and throwing programs. He has a very strict protocol. I’d be lost without them.”
By the time the wheels of the airplane left the ground at Pittsburgh International Airport en route to sunny Florida, there was no amount of turbulence that was going to rattle these Lions. PSNK had five days in Kissimmee, Fla., to make sense of what happened, put it behind them and play some ball.
“(Florida) was a nice change of pace,” Minerva said. “Florida definitely was a come together week. We did a lot of stuff and did a lot of activities. It definitely was a bonding week, and it was positive. Even though we got beat up a little bit, I tried to keep things as upbeat as possible.”
PSNK competed in the RussMatt Invitational and went 1-4, picking up a 7-6 win over Emerson (Mass.) in the Lions’ second game.
The trip wasn’t all about winning for Minerva. It was about evaluating his team.
“There was a lot of experimenting down in Florida,” Minerva said. “There was a lot of experimentation that went well, some that didn’t go so well, and it also showed the kids where they fit on the team. Establishing the players roles was really big in Florida.”
PSNK (1-7, 0-2 Penn State University Athletic Conference) finished last season with a 4-16 record and placed fifth in the PSUAC West. PSNK opened up conference play at home Saturday, losing both games of a doubleheader to the league champs Penn State DuBois.
The local Lions boast a roster of 16 players, half are freshmen.
Minerva is going to rely on veteran players early. Returning players include senior Vinny Ribar (Kiski Area) and juniors Darius Bennis (Leechburg) and Noah Oddis (Burrell).
Ribar is expected to start at first base, Oddis at second and Bennis will split time with freshman Reise Matson (Armstrong) behind the plate.
“They’ll split doubleheaders,” Minerva said. “Pretty much all of our games are doubleheaders, so they rotate.”
Rounding out the infield will be a couple of freshmen in Tyler Elliot (Jeannette) at shortstop and Ardmore, Okla., native Sebastien Nelson at third base. Minerva said he really likes Nelson’s bat.
The outfield is fresh, too. All three spots will be occupied by first-year players. Josh Stuckley (Highlands) will get the start in left field, and Chris Rendulic will man center field. There’s a battle between two Greyhounds in right field between Monessen grads Anthonio Rhome and Nick Baker.
Rendulic’s grand slam against Emerson delivered the Lions their only win in Florida.
“Rendulic caught my eye the most and seeing how much power he had in his arm,” Minerva said.
Sophomore Justin Lindeman (Franklin Regional) is the No. 1 pitcher with Rendulic, Stuckley and Baker rounding out the top four.
“My starting core guys, my starting nine, I’d put against anybody,” Minerva said. “The starting core is really the bread and butter of the program.”