Connelly: Gillispie's challenge sparked NCAA run
On April 26, the Youngstown State baseball team lost 7-5 to the University of Milwaukee.
It was the team’s 28th loss in 36 games.
The Penguins were 3-10 in the Horizon League.
Second-year coach Steve Gillispie was noticing a trend from his team that he wasn’t happy with. So he presented a challenge to his ball club.
“There were 25 days leading up to the conference tournament,” Gillispie recalled, sitting at the podium at Bart Kaufman Field after his team’s season-ending loss to Stanford.
“They say it takes 21 days to create a new habit and they needed new habits. So we had time to gel and come together, and they embraced that.”
The Penguins finished the season 8-8, thanks to a four-game sweep in the conference tournament, and made the most unlikely of runs to an NCAA regional berth.
Unlikely not just because of the number of wins, but because of how they did it.
“It’s been an incredible ride,” said senior and Poland High grad Phil Lipari. “Wouldn’t trade it for anything. These teammates are phenomenal.
“We started off the year and obviously played good competition, but we just weren’t playing good baseball.”
He was right. And it took all of the three-plus weeks for them to change their habits.
But they did. They began doing the little things needed to win games. Everything they weren’t doing over the first two months of the season, they started to do. And do so consistently.
A coach couldn’t ask for much more of his team, which was just the message Gillispie gave to his players after Sunday’s loss.
“I thanked them for their commitment to what they did there,” he said. “And each team’s unique because that team will never be the same again.
“So it was a sad time, but yet they had a lot — and I mean a lot — to be proud of what they accomplished in those 25 days.”
And beyond. They turned what had the making of a lost season into a nice story, then parlayed that into the first NCAA baseball tournament win in school history.
The players understood the challenge they were facing on Sunday and walked off the field for the last time with their heads, and hands, in the air saluting the fans who traveled to support them.
The Hoosiers and Cardinal were the class of the region, but the no-name team from eastern Ohio — who some were saying didn’t belong — represented itself, and its school, admirably.
“I think, as seniors, that’s pretty much the way we wanted to go out,” said Lipari. “Just going back to that feeling that we had in the dog pile, and how we accomplished what we did, and the streak that we went on, and obviously finishing it out here against Indiana and one of the top teams in the country in Stanford.
“These are moments not too many people get to have. It’s just awesome to look back and see what we accomplished.”
It’ll be even more awesome if the program can use it to build for the future.
Kevin Connelly is a sportswriter for The Vindicator. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, @Connelly_Vindy.