A Team That Was Needed

Penn State head coach Rob Cooper during warm ups before the game against Binghamton March 26, 2019, The Nittany Lions won 5-3. Photo: Penn State Athletics

Penn State baseball’s First Pitch Dinner and Silent Auction always represent a special night for the program. 

The banquet includes a dinner, silent auction for alumni, fans, families and friends in attendance, and is the first official introduction of the team ahead of a new season. 

In seasons past, former players would attend with a tradition of presenting the current team with their jerseys. 

This year, the banquet took on the theme of “Honoring the Decades,” recognizing members of the 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2010 Penn State baseball teams. Extra recognition was given to the 2000 team, which advanced to the NCAA Super Regionals. 

But this banquet took on even more of a special meaning for coach Rob Cooper. 

As the 2020 team made its entrance into the room, Cooper was moved to see his players sporting pink ties with their suits, honoring Cooper’s wife Maureen ‘Mo,’ who was diagnosed with breast cancer last August. 

The players also presented Maureen, who serves as the Director of Commonwealth Campus Athletics for the Office of Ethics and Compliance at Penn State, with a bouquet of flowers.  

“I said at the banquet and I told my players, if there was ever a year I needed to coach this team, it was this year,” Cooper said.  “I love em’. Love em’ for what they’ve done for her and for us.”

The pink ties and presentation of flowers followed a batch of great news just a few weeks earlier for the Cooper family. 

On Jan. 10, she completed radiation treatment and Cooper captured the moment on Twitter when Mo rang the bell to celebrate.

“She’s doing great,” Cooper said. “She doesn’t need chemo(therapy), which is huge. The love and support from the Penn State community, the State College community has been special. And also what our coaches players have meant to my family over this time. It’s been a real emotional thing in a good way, because those guys have done a lot to help my family, help myself.”

Junior pitcher Kyle Virbitsky, who’s entering his third season playing for Cooper, said there was never any question from the team about getting behind Mo, Rob and the rest of the family.

“One of the big reasons I came to Penn State was the family atmosphere that existed,” Virbitsky said. “Both my parents went here and Coach Coop recognized that, opened his arms to us all the time. When Mo went through that, there was no question she was going to get our support. She might as well be a member of this team. She’s like our second mom. Anything we could do to help, we were absolutely going to do it.” 

Cooper said coaches have offered to help the family in a number of ways, whether that be picking up his youngest son Jake from high school and baseball practices to bring him home or picking up groceries and other items the family might need. 

Coaches and players alike also let Cooper know that if he wasn’t able to attend a practice or meeting, that they would be sure that things would continue to run smoothly in his absence. 

The sixth-year coach tried to maintain a sense of normalcy through it all, though, spending as much time around his team as was possible. 

“Well, when I’m (with the team) it’s kind of like a sanctuary,” Cooper said. “It’s definitely a chance to not worry as much for a little bit. Take your mind off things. When you have a bunch of guys that truly care about you, it makes things a bit easier to deal with. I needed a group like this to help my family and myself get through this.”

Cooper has long been a leader in the fight against cancer, even before Mo received her diagnosis. 

Since Cooper arrived at Penn State for the 2014 season, the baseball team has supported the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation’s Baseball Vs. Cancer campaign, raising nearly $50,000 as of this past December. 

The program also hosts annual Vs. Cancer and Penn State THON games that have welcomed THON families and featured team members shaving their heads postgame. 

The efforts have helped raise support for Penn State Children’s Hospital’s Four Diamonds and its mission to conquer childhood cancer by assisting children and their families through superior care, comprehensive support and innovative research.

In December, Cooper was named an inaugural Baseball Vs. Cancer ambassador. Consisting of current and former coaches, players and members of the media, Baseball Vs. Cancer ambassadors represent the athletic community’s shared resolve to raise awareness and funds for a world without childhood brain tumors.

“It’s a very high honor,” Cooper said. “It’s something that means a great deal to me. Regardless of what my wife has been through, I would have done it, because of what it means to me personally. Now, this year, it obviously hits a lot closer to home.” 

Trips to the Penn State Hershey Medical Center had a profound effect on Cooper, before and during trips there with his wife for her treatment. 

“You look around and you see these kids there. They’re six, seven, eight years old,” Cooper said. “You see them in hospital beds and in hallways and they’ve got tubes in them. You just want to help give those kids a chance, man. They haven’t had a chance to experience a lot of the stuff we’ve got to experience.” 

“So, this initiative and being an ambassador means a lot to me. It’s something I’m very proud of.”  

Sophomore third baseman Justin Williams believes how much the players and community rallied behind Cooper and his family during Mo’s treatment is a testament to the person Cooper is beyond his role as a baseball coach, demonstrated by him being named as Vs. Cancer ambassador. 

“Not only is he our coach, he’s a friend to everybody on the team,” Williams said. “We’re around him every day and we are going to do whatever we can to support him and his family. I think that speaks to the culture were building here, the culture he’s helped create.” 

Virbitsky echoed Williams’ sentiment that Cooper is much more than their coach. 

“He’s also like our second dad. I can go to him with anything. Any problem I’ve ever needed help with, he’s 100 percent always been there for me,” Virbitsky said. “I love playing for the guy. Was more than happy to rally the troops for him and Mo just let them know ‘Hey, we’re right here behind ya.’”

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