Peña uses experience to step into leadership role for young USF team

Redshirt sophomore Roberto Peña (left) finished the season with 12 home runs, tied for the most on the Bulls. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

Redshirt sophomore Roberto Peña made his mark on the USF baseball program in his first year with the team, but it wasn’t always easy for the player whose teammates call “Chamo.”

In his first season with the Bulls, Peña finished with a .236 batting average and tied with redshirt junior Riley Hogan for the most home runs on the team with 12. Becoming an impactful piece on a team that made a deep postseason run was a long process that started when he was no taller than his own bat.

The Venezuelan native took up the sport when he was 3 years old thanks to the influence of his late mother.

“Everything started when I was 3,” Peña said. “My mom was a really big baseball fan and she started taking me to the little tee games, the tee-ball games and stuff.

“She passed away when I was 8. … Ever since then, that’s what’s been pushing me every day to just keep getting better and keep playing baseball.”

After moving to Miami from Venezuela when he was 11, Peña went on to play baseball for three years at Charles W. Flanagan High School, and played his senior season at Calvary Christian Academy. Peña’s high school performance was enough for him to earn an opportunity to play Division I baseball at UF.

At the conclusion of his freshman year, however, Peña transferred out of the swamp and traded up Division I baseball for a junior college opportunity at the College of Central Florida, which he said was one the best decisions he’s ever made.

“After my freshman year, it probably was one of my best decisions I’ve done in my whole life, going to [the] College of Central Florida with Marty Smith,” Peña said. “He welcomed me with open arms. He helped me with everything in my game, and helped me get back to the biggest level which is D1.”

After his stint in junior college, Peña transferred to USF, a program he had a couple of connections with.

“Obviously we wanted him out of high school, but he ended up at Florida,” coach Billy Mohl said when recalling bringing in Peña. “But his relationship with [assistant] coach [Alan] Kunkel, [he] had him in high school. … We had some history there and Kunkel had nothing but good things to say about the kid so we took the chance.”

Both Kunkel, who worked with Peña at Calvary Christian Academy, and redshirt sophomore Julio Cortez, someone Peña has been playing with since he was in Venezuela, were two big reasons why Peña decided USF was a great choice for him.

“Thankfully, coach Kunkel reached out to me and recruited me to come here,” Peña said. “I’ve always been interested in the Bulls [and] Tampa, it’s a great city. Kunkel also coached me in high school so that made it easier for me to come here.

“I committed late because it was between here and LSU, but I ended up coming here because I didn’t want to leave the state and I wanted my parents to come watch me play.”

From there on, Peña became a leader on a young Bulls team that made a run in the postseason that not many saw coming. USF was selected to finish last in the AAC by the preseason coaches poll, but proved it’s doubters wrong by winning the conference tournament and becoming the champions of the Gainesville Regional.

The Bulls eventually fell to No. 2 Texas in the Super Regionals, but the improbable run was memorable and provided experience to a team full of youth.

That young team needed leaders, and Mohl had a leadership role carved out for Peña since he joined the squad.

“We’re a very young team and me stepping in as a third year, having to step up and be a leader is what kind of did it for me,” Peña said. “Since I’ve stepped into campus, Mohl told me that I was going to be one the guys [where] he needed me to step up and be a leader because we’re a very young team and there’s 20-something new players on our team.

“That’s what I’ve been doing, that’s what I think has helped my game as well, too … Coming to USF, trying to change the program, trying to change the culture, trying to make it a winning program again, make it back into regionals. They needed a leader [and] Mohl kind of gave me that role. More like the emotional, vocal leader that the team needed.”

Mohl said he believes the energy Peña brought to the team was a crucial part of his leadership presence.

“The biggest thing he brought was just his energy, we haven’t had a player like that since I have been here,” Mohl said. “Just to be able to pull guys up and take them along with him, that’s the biggest compliment I could give Chamo.

“He was the heartbeat for this team.”

While Peña has stepped up into the role that Mohl wanted for him, he has also been motivated by his teammates, and not just by his fellow veteran players.

“It’s odd to say, but the freshman class is really what has been pushing me,” Peña said. “We have a very talented freshman class with [Drew] Brutcher, [Matt] Ruiz and there’s some kids who still don’t play [but] have really high potential.”

Brutcher ended the season with a .294 batting average and launched eight home runs in his first year at USF. As for Ruiz, he finished with a .265 batting average to go along with his 22 RBIs on the season.

The immediate impact the freshman class has made is due to the level headedness of the group, according to Peña.

“The freshman class is honestly what shows who we are. As a freshman, I’ve been there. It’s more of a roller-coaster thing your freshman year,” Peña said. “It’s very emotional because it’s your first year, you always want to do good and when things go bad it’s like the world is ending, but they’ve done a very good job of staying even-keeled, even when things are going bad, they stay up.”

Along with being a veteran leader, Peña also brought his pregame routines to USF that stick with him wherever he goes. He has introduced at least one unique habit to his teammates he learned in junior college.

“Usually, before every game, I listen to this tape by Steve Springer, he talks about the mental side of the game,” Peña said. “I listen to him before every game. It’s a 15-minute clip that I have on my phone. After that, I go to the field, throw or stretch.

“After that I buy beans, little white beans. We hit beans before every game. Me, Matt and [Carmine Lane], always hitting beans before games. I picked up that superstition in JUCO, and I brought it over and I got some people on it now.”

When Peña steps up to the plate, he said those few seconds before hitting are crucial, so he has to set the right mood coming into the box. Thus, a good walk-up song is a must.

“I like feeling comfortable going into the box,” Peña said. “I started with some Spanish and I wasn’t hitting well with it so I changed it back to the one I had in high school when I was doing good, [but] that one didn’t work. So then I went back to the one that gets the crowd in it and that got me going better. The energy and environment changed.” 

Peña decided to go with “Los Dioses” by Anuel AA and Ozuna as his walkup song to get the crowd involved.

In his first season with the Bulls, Peña helped propel the team both with his play on the field and his leadership off of it. Mohl said he wants the heartbeat of his team back and has already begun thinking of how he will use Peña next season, but he also knows Peña has big league potential.

“We will see how the draft plays out and if he gets the chance to play professional baseball, he made it clear to me that he wants to come back,” Mohl said. “Obviously we really want him back, and if he is back he’s probably going to hit in the middle of our order. We are still trying to figure out a position for him but he is going to be moving back to the infield.”

Peña started the season in the infield, but some injuries required Mohl to shuffle players around the field and put them in new positions. Peña was one of those players and finished the season playing center field.

“[Him switching positions] is just a testament of him doing whatever the team needed at that point,” Mohl said. “Most guys would be reluctant to do something like that.”

As for what Peña’s big dreams are, his sights are set on the MLB, whether it be this year or the following.

“My ultimate goal is to play in the MLB,” Peña said. “Hopefully after this year, if not [then] next year, I get the chance to play professional baseball and start my professional career.”