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YSU ‘grit’ campaign has its positives

YOUNGSTOWN — A little lumberjack, a little grit and maybe even a little swag.

That’s the best way to describe the new sideline props of the Youngstown State football team, and if that doesn’t also accurately depict the Mahoning Valley, I don’t know what does.

Maybe you caught a glimpse of the team’s sideline after a big play at some point this season. The new fad was clearly evident in the Penguins’ nationally televised season opener against Samford, and it mimics the “turnover chain” of the Miami Hurricanes, Alabama’s “ball-out belt” and Boise State’s “turnover throne,” among others.

YSU breaks out a hardhat with a “Y” logo on the front of it and a giant sledgehammer. Every time there’s a turnover or a touchdown, the player who scored or got the turnover puts on the hard hat and pounds the sledgehammer into the ground — with a little style, of course.

It’s just so darn Youngstown.

Sure, YSU’s #GritU mantra (as it’s called on Twitter and other social media sites) is a bit trendy, but at YSU, it has meaning

“Being from Youngstown, that’s what it’s all about,” said true freshman quarterback Mark Waid, a Girard graduate who was able to break out the props for the first time when he scored twice in last week’s win over Duquesne. “It’s about hard work, it’s about grit. We call ourselves GritU, but we really are. All the people from Youngstown’s beginning, it’s always been about hard work, coal mining, and it’s just a testament to all those who have died before us and have been through the struggles of living in this city.

“That’s our forefathers in Youngstown,” he added. “That’s what it’s all been about — hard work and grit. You’ve got to get your hands dirty and do what you’ve got to do for your family. This is a family (at Youngstown State), and when we take the field, we just do what we have to do for each other to win.”

That last part is where a mantra like this can help a team.

Since the season started, players have talked about being more of a team and sticking together — traits last year’s team lacked. Yeah, that sounds like cliches and typical “blah, blah, blah” stuff that guys are supposed to say, but there’s more to it this year.

The Penguins are playing like a group that has, to use another cliche, “bought in” to the coaching staff, the schemes and each other. As I mentioned in previous articles, there have been several moments of adversity during YSU’s 3-0 start, but the 21st-ranked Penguins have responded by working together and executing. That rarely happened last year or the year before, when YSU was a combined 10-12 and missed out on the playoffs following a national championship run in 2016.

In football, building a winning program is so much more than just talent and coaching. There are immeasurable intangibles that a team must possess to succeed. It’s still early in the season, and the Missouri Valley Football Conference will test this team much more than anything they’ve faced to this point, but there are positive signs of legitimate team chemistry.

If it takes a hardhat and a sledgehammer to help bring it together — it sounds like as good of a rallying cry as a Youngstownian can concoct.

“I honestly think that’s huge,” said fifth-year senior and former South Range running back Joe Alessi about the motto. “I don’t know how many people knew we were going to do it, but I thought that was huge because that just gets you that much more hype on the sideline. In the past, I felt like our sideline was kind of dead. We were always very quiet on the sideline. That just picks it up that much more and gets us that much more ready and hyped up for the next series, the next drive, the next play.

“That just shows the culture change. There really has been a change in culture. Everybody has bought in this year.”

The mettle of the Penguins has yet to be fully tested.

Their first few opponents were solid but not spectacular. YSU will see spectacular Oct. 5 on the road against eighth-ranked Northern Iowa. They’ll see it a couple more times in MVFC play against perennial national contenders South Dakota State and North Dakota State, among others.

They’re probably going to face some deficits and negativity along the way. Players will argue. Coaches will lose their cool, and things won’t always go as planned. If they can remember how they came together during the tough times early in the season and continue to find ways to overcome adversity instead of adding to it, this team can contend for a playoff spot.

If a loss or two leads to dissension in the locker room and coaches bad-mouthing players or each other, then it could be another lost season for the Penguins. Plus, it would be a waste of some pretty cool sideline props.