Crashing the party: 16-36 YSU reaches NCAA tourney

Youngstown State celebrates after clinching a berth in the NCAA baseball tournament.

Youngstown State University Athletics

This weekend, the Youngstown State Penguins are the Youngstown State Party Crashers.

Quite a party it’s been.

The NCAA baseball tournament will start Friday in four-team regionals played at 16 home sites, and there might be no more unlikely participant than the 16-36 Penguins, who play top-seeded Indiana on Friday night.

Youngstown State got there by winning the Horizon League tournament last weekend, sweeping four games after going 6-17 in conference play during the regular season.

"Just in time," second-year coach Steve Gillispie said.

The celebratory dogpile.

YSU was 2-14 in the last week of March and 4-23 before it won consecutive games for the first time all season in mid-April.

"There was probably a sense that we were the same old Youngstown State," Gillispie said. "In a way that’s understandable."

Of the 35-man roster, 16 players had never played Div. I baseball. The 19 holdovers had been part of an 11-44 team last year, and some a 14-41 team the year before that.

That’s miserable.

So, too, were some of the bus rides home early in the season. Before college basketball season was even over, the baseball Penguins had lost games by counts of 15-2, 12-2, 18-9 and 16-1.

"I felt all along this team had a good skill level, had some good parts,’ Gillispie said. "We needed time. We needed improvement. We needed luck."

Gillispie was hitting coach and recruiting coordinator at Jacksonville State (Ala.) for 11 years — three Jacksonville State teams made the NCAA tournament in that time — before taking the Youngstown State job two years ago.

Northern baseball is different. Especially with this year’s weather, well, let’s just say "Penguins" was a fitting name.

"We competed at times last year," Gillispie said. "What was disappointing was the whole body of work. And, obviously, this year we didn’t get results but there were signs of improvement. We went through a situation early in the year where two of our weekend Horizon League series were totally wiped out by weather. That means our top pitchers went three weeks without a normal routine.

"Those are excuses. We know that. I think once you do break that glass ceiling, you start believing, and you can get something to show for the work you’ve put in. Honestly, the first thing we looked at was that (all six) teams make the conference tournament. No matter how bad things once were, we had that. We were going to have a chance."

The scoreboard after Youngstown State’s Horizon League tournament championship win.

By last weekend’s conference tournament, Gillispie saw a confident team. YSU won by 7-3 and 7-1 counts on the tournament’s first two days, then 11-5 over Milwaukee to get to the final. A 5-4 championship game win over Wright State came after YSU scored twice in the top of the ninth, just after giving up two and a lead in the bottom of the eighth.

"Nobody in that dugout thought we were going to lose," Gillispie said.

That’s quite a change.

Everything changes now. The No. 4 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, Indiana last season became the first Big Ten team to advance to the College World Series in 29 years. The Hoosiers are guaranteed to play at home this year in their quest to get back.

Indiana is 42-13 on the year and has won six straight.

Only two more than Youngstown State has.

"We came into last weekend believing we’d score runs, believing we’d get good pitching, believing it could be done," Gillispie said. "And we did. We only made one error all weekend. Our guys believed. And now we go forward thinking, ‘Hey, why not, right?’"

Hey, why not?