YSU improves facilities, title hopes
By Joe Scalzo
Just a few years after Youngstown State’s athletic programs (arguably) hit rock bottom, Penguins athletic director Ron Strollo sat in a chair in his office and said something that would have once been unthinkable:
“If you look at our fall programs, all of our kids are coming back this fall hoping to win a championship — from volleyball to soccer to both cross country teams and football,” he said. “Those are the things I wouldn’t have been able to say four or five years ago.
“Now, will they win championships? I don’t know. But that’s where we aspired to be a long time ago and I think we’re getting there.”
Thanks to a multi-million dollar investment in YSU’s sports facilities and a gradual increase in each team’s budget, the Penguins have gone from being the Washington Generals of the Horizon League to a department that Strollo believes is capable of experiencing — and, more importantly, maintaining — success.
“Three or four years ago, some of our programs like baseball and softball had had some success, but I didn’t really feel like that our programs had a foundation to keep that success,” Strollo said. “I didn’t feel like we could really expect championships every year.
“Now, we’re starting to feel like we’ve gotten that foundation in virtually all of our programs. Now you feel like you can not only have a good year, but that the next year might be better.”
Last fall, the football team’s failure to make the playoffs after an upset win over Pitt in the opener overshadowed some major gains by the women’s soccer team (which went 8-9 to set a school record for wins) and the volleyball team (which had its best year since joining the Horizon League).
YSU’s men’s and women’s basketball teams also had their best Horizon League seasons, as did the men’s and women’s tennis teams.
Strollo believes even better things are on the way thanks to the new soccer and softball fields and the new outdoor track, which should all be completed in time for the start of those sports.
The university and its boosters also have made smaller, but significant, investments in the basketball programs via a new scoreboard (which has been ordered and is expected to be installed this summer) and a new weight room (which was recently finished).
YSU has also renovated most teams’ offices and locker rooms in recent years and, of course, built the WATTS. Those renovations, along with increased budgets, have allowed the Penguins to attract better coaches and better recruits, Strollo said.
“We’re getting closer,” he said. “We’ve got a ways to go. It’s just taking time. We don’t have the resources that our peers do, to just throw some money at it. It’s taken partnerships with the community through fund-raising and different things and the approval of the university.
“The good part of this is you can tell the kids are having much better experiences than they were 10-15 years ago.”
Strollo does still have a few projects on his wish list. The Penguins’ outdoor tennis courts are near the end of their usefulness and might end up being moved from their spot between Beeghly Center and Stambaugh Stadium.
“That’s a great location for a parking lot,” Strollo said. “Those tennis courts also in this region of the country should ideally be indoors. So, the question is, are you able to generate enough revenue to build indoor courts or rehab the current courts?”
Strollo would also like to eventually bring baseball back on campus from Eastwood Field.
“But Eastwood’s been an unbelievable partner for us and it would be hard to duplicate that facility,” he said.
For all the upgrades, football still dominates YSU’s athletic program. The Penguins have narrowly missed the playoffs each of the past two years, but with this year’s tournament expanding to 24 teams, and with powerhouses like Appalachian State and Georgia Southern ineligible due to moving to the FBS, this could be the year they end their six-season drought.
“We have high expectations for football,” Strollo said. “We expect to play in the postseason. I don’t think we’ve ever hid behind that fact.”
Even without a playoff berth, Strollo said the YSU’s athletic contributions and revenues continue to go up.
“We’ve grown 6-7-8 percent in revenue every year and academically we’re at all-time highs when it comes to grade point average,” he said. “Football’s not doing what it was doing, but I think clearly there’s some excitement around the program.
“People see that we’ve improved. It’s just now trying to get over the hump with a couple of those games.”