This story was written by Matt Provenzano of the Big Red Sports Network.
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ITHACA, N.Y. — For Cornell baseball’s new Ted Thoren Head Coach Dan Pepicelli, success has been a given.
In his six years with Clemson as the associate head coach, Pepicelli helped lead his team to the College World Series in 2010, and then five subsequent NCAA Regional showings. His experience and baseball acumen extended even further beyond that; he also served as the assistant coach at Hartwick from 1996 to 2000, and then he was the head coach of St. John Fisher from 2001 to 2009.
He is now taking over for former baseball coach Bill Walkenbach, who took a position as the head coach at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. Pepicelli was willing to sit down and talk about his career and past successes, why he wanted to come to Cornell, and the goals he has for the baseball program.
On why he chose Cornell:
“Two years ago, I’m coaching at Clemson. I was the associate head coach there and it was a great job, and I bumped into Coach [Tom] Ford in Atlanta. ‘Hey, you must love it there!’, he said. I said, ‘Yeah, I love it. But, if that Cornell job opens up, I’d love a shot at it’. He said, ‘You’re kidding me!’. I said, ‘No, I’m dead serious, because I would love to work with that kind of kid’. Getting a true student-athlete who’s typically going to be a disciplined kid–I like that. I like the balance of the Ivy League, as well. The demands placed on the kids at Clemson were off the charts. Being able to come back to where there’s more balance in a student-athlete–I was really looking forward to that. Also, I’ve always had a thing for this place. I always thought it was beautiful, I had a lot of respect for it because I coached up the road for ten years. Cornell was always in the back of my head, and I would say to myself, ‘Man, I’d love that job’. So they [Clemson administration] came in in June and let our head coach go, and they let us all go, and within a week, the Cornell job opened up. It couldn’t have worked out any better, and I was smiling ear-to-ear. That vision of being here has been with me for a long time, much longer than the time I spent out of work.
On what he learned at Clemson:
“I think the key was paying attention. When you take a job like that, the real benefit is the access you get. I got to work every day with Coach [Jack] Leggett, who’s a Hall of Fame coach. And then, to compete against Mike Martin [of Florida State], Brian O’Connor [of Virginia], Dan McDonnell at Louisville, Coach Fox at North Carolina–these are either current or future Hall of Famers–just seeing what they did was important. You know, really paying attention to the details of what they did. Each program had a lot of similarities, and you could tell those were fundamental things that you want in your program, and then these programs would also have a little flare that made them different. Louisville’s more of a baserunning team–super aggressive–and Coach O’Connor and the offense at Virginia is very opportunistic. So paying attention to how the styles worked, and then figuring out, ‘When my opportunity comes, what do I want my program to look like?’. Being able to use that entire pot of talent, and then figuring out what my style would be was so valuable. And, I got to do it for six years. So, it was good.”
On blending your style with a new team: “Well, there’s really two parts to it. The first part is that we have to have the culture the way we want it; I think we know that that’s our priority. My priority right now is to get this culture so that it brings out the very best in these guys: very detail-oriented, being aggressive towards those details–not just on the field, but in the classroom as well–and working on being a better man in life. Those details are really important. And then, while you may have a certain style of baseball that you would like to play at some point, we really have to watch these guys and evaluate them this year to say, ‘What type of style fits the players in this clubhouse right now?’ I don’t want to become a slave to style just yet. I just really want to give them a strong culture that they buy into, one that they’re motivated about.”
On working with the staff: “I am extremely happy with the staff. We click. Coach [Scott] Marsh and I are different from one another, which is great. Coach Ford is different from Coach Marsh, who’s different from me. We do really, really well with each other. And then Frank Hager came back as the volunteer–a really sharp kid. He’s a great addition. It will be one of the things that will make this year so enjoyable.”
On his new team: “They’re a hungry group. When I first got the job I was calling each player on an individual basis, and I really liked what I heard back. They have a high level of motivation, so different doesn’t concern them at all. Change for the sake of change isn’t better; we need to find out what we need to improve upon. There were things that this team did quite well, and other things they struggled with. I’m trying to fix those things, and I think they know that.”
On recruiting: “Virginia and Vanderbilt, for example, recruit to their culture, and I think there’s a lesson there. It’s not all about finding the best players out there, but finding good players that fit what we’re trying to be. I’ve been talking with potential recruits about what my vision is for this, and then asking what’s important to them, and why they play this game… I’m trying to get in under those extra layers to find out the kind of guy we’re getting. That’s a little more time consuming, and sometimes you lose a recruit, but I would rather get the people with the right makeup coming through that door.”
On goals for the semester: “I want to get us all on the same page, and the culture is by far the most important thing. I want to get a sense that everything we do is done the right way. When you walk in the locker room, it should be clean. It should look like there are first-class athletes in there. The way we wear a uniform, and the fact that we’re clean-shaven, shows a level of discipline. That’s important to me. Because if you’re handling those details, then you’re going to pay attention to the fundamentals of the game. What I’m seeing is that people are enjoying that journey, at least so far. It’s early, but they like the idea of getting every drop out of this that they can. On the field, I want to keep things very simple. I want to get good at a small number of things that we can count on doing, because in the Ivy League, there really isn’t that much practice time. Instead of having five bunt defenses, have two you can do really well… Other than that, learn how to hit-and-run, learn how to sac bunt, and let’s play.”
On the program’s future: “We should be number one in the Ivy League, year-in, and year-out. I want people to think that coming through here means winning the Ivy League every year. I don’t want to wait five years to do it. I have a vision of what this can look like in my mind, and I will believe until proven otherwise that the people in the clubhouse can do this today. Now, I don’t know what our limitations are. All of this is promise and hope right now, but I think it’s better to think about it that way instead of waiting for new recruits. I’m hoping we can get there now. I think we owe it the seniors, who have put their time and energy into this program, to try to get to an Ivy League championship this year.”
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