Cameron Pollack | Sun Photography Editor

The Red batted .295 collectively on the season.

May 1, 2017

Two Seasons in, Pepicelli’s Culture Begins to Pay Dividends for Baseball

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This story is part of The Sun’s 2017 spring supplement. To view the rest of the supplement, click here.

On Aug. 10, 2015, Cornell chose Dan Pepicelli as the man to take the reins of its struggling baseball program. Pepicelli had been a coach at ACC powerhouse Clemson for six years and had big plans in mind for his tenure in Ithaca. Less than two years later, his impact on the team is already quite apparent.

The Schenectady native’s first season at the helm was a learning experience. With no time to put together a recruiting class or assemble a coaching staff, Pepicelli had little to work with.

What followed was an up and down year for the Red. The team had big series wins at Bucknell and Wofford, as well as a home sweep of Harvard, but an overall record of 14-24 and 7-13 in the conference left Cornell in the Ivy League’s cellar.

But with any new hire, patience is a virtue.

In the offseason, Pepicelli had the chance to bring in a competitive recruiting class, change up coaching assignments and continue to promote his brand of baseball to the program.

“We moved coach [Tom] Ford over to the hitters, I went over to the pitchers and really went back to what I do, and I brought coach [Frank] Hager ‘12 in as our recruiting coordinator,” Pepicelli said.

The team also brought in several new players to fill key holes, like junior transfer Ryan Krainz as the everyday shortstop and freshman Kaleb Lepper as the center fielder.

As for the culture, Pepicelli’s changes were just starting to take hold.

“He wanted us to be what we call a windshield program,” said senior pitcher Paul Balestrieri. “It’s an attitude that no matter what’s thrown at you, you just keep fighting.”

“He’s really made us accountable and forced us to trust our teammates,” junior Trey Baur added. “When you come up to bat in the seventh inning of a big game and you can’t get the job done, you know your teammate behind you is going to.”

This year, those changes began to pay off. Cornell fell a couple games short of making the postseason, but its overall record of 21-17 and 9-11 in the Ivy League was a significant improvement. Statistically, the team was vastly improved across the board.

Last year, the Red was last in the league in just about every major statistical category: eighth in batting average at .240, eighth in runs scored, eighth in team ERA at 6.19 and seventh in fielding percentage. This year was a different story.

“This season was clearly an improvement across the board,” Pepicelli told The Sun. “Statistically, we were a much better hitting team, and our ERA was way down from where it was last year. We’ve shown a lot of improvements, and our wins and losses reflect that.”

The Red batted .295 and pitched to a 4.60 ERA, a far cry from those same statistics last season.

“Coach Ford has helped us out a lot,” Baur said. “He’ll be the first one to put all the credit on the hitters for what they’re doing, but he deserves just as much credit as we do.”

Cornell sprinted out of the gate to open up the year. Dealt a schedule that began with 14 consecutive road games, the Red battled through it and went 9-5 over that stretch. But as the season went on, injuries began to take their toll. The team opened Ivy play by winning just three of its first eight.

At one point or another, Cornell was without starting first baseman Cole Rutherford, catcher Ellis Bitar, Baur, Lepper and right fielder Dale Wickham.

“We had a lot of players not on the field at the end that we needed, and I think that hurt our chances,” Pepicelli said.

That being said, Cornell’s bench stepped up in a big way and kept the team afloat while fighting off the injury bug.

“We did have a lot of injuries, but we also had a lot of guys step up and do a great job,” Pepicelli said. “I don’t think the whole story was that we had a lot of injuries.”

“When we lost some of the big guys, so many younger guys stepped up,” Balestrieri added. “That’s a testament to the culture that coach Pep has brought with him. It’s a real mental toughness.”

Guys like sophomore Will Simoneit and junior Kyle Gallagher stepped up in a big way, and the team fought hard, but ultimately fell just short of its goal.

“We were ambitious. We wanted to win [the Ivy title] this year, and we thought we could,” Pepicelli said. “We’re all extremely disappointed, but I definitely see an upward trajectory with what we’ve been able to do over the last few years.”

The team’s head coach also gives a tremendous amount of credit to his graduating class for that continued progress and for embodying the “windshield” culture.

“We had a group of upperclassmen that were just amazing competitors. We had a lot of adversity thrown at us, and we kept answering it and answering it,” he said.

Baur made sure to recognize the graduating seniors as well.

“The seniors the last two years have been huge,” he said. “Players go out there, and they don’t want to let coach Pepicelli down, but it’s even worse to let down those seniors that are putting in so much work each day.”

“I’m very proud of my fellow seniors for taking the challenge that coach Pep gave us by putting this program in the right direction,” Balestrieri added.

So what is next for Cornell baseball? Well, the team’s goal is still to win an Ivy League trophy, and the team members are not lacking in confidence.

Pepicelli has instilled a culture where his team believes they can beat anyone they face.

Cameron Pollack | Sun Photography Editor

Pepicelli has instilled a culture where his team believes they can beat anyone they face.

“If you look at our improvement over the last two years, and if we just keep putting in the work we’ve been putting in, we think we could see that next year turn into an Ivy League championship,” Baur said.

In order to get there, the Red will rely on contributions from players up and down the lineup, both new and old.

One key to that formula is new assistant coach and head of recruiting Frank Hager.

“Nobody can sell the program better than Coach Hager,” Pepicelli said. “And that’s what we need to do … We need to win on the recruiting trail if we’re going to win during the spring.”

As for existing players, Cornell will lose quite a few key contributors in the offseason, but even the outgoing seniors have faith in those remaining in Ithaca.

“This team has a lot of talent coming back next year. They will have a lot of solid upperclassmen to rely on,” Rutherford said.

The graduating slugger’s fellow senior also has lofty expectations for next year’s team.

“I’m excited to follow what they can accomplish,” Balestrieri said. “I’m really proud to call myself a Cornell baseball player right now.”

And even though Pepicelli may not be ready to move on from this season just yet, he still knows the program is very much in good shape for the future.

“This was a great team. They fought their tails off the entire year. They were first class in every way, but they just came up a little bit short,” he said. “It’s about the trajectory though, and if you add it all up, it really provides for a promising future.”

This story is part of The Sun’s 2017 spring supplement. To view the rest of the supplement, click here.