Sweep is sweet
First-place Penguins take two from Oakland
YOUNGSTOWN — If a calendar wasn’t available, one might mistake Friday afternoon’s doubleheader at Youngstown State as a contest played in early March instead of the middle of April.
Jackets, earmuffs, and gloves were common commodities for spectators taking in the battle for first place between the Penguins and visiting Oakland Golden Grizzlies, although another set of items appeared frequently during the two games.
Oversized faux sunglasses and Hawaiian leis adorned the YSU dugout, as the Penguins were ready to have a party despite the colder than normal temperatures.
If this weekend is indeed going to be a joyous one, YSU kicked off festivities the right way with a pair of wins on Friday, by final scores of 3-2 and 8-3.
The teams play two more games today. With Friday’s sweep, YSU is 18-4 in the league (25-9 overall) and Oakland slips to third place at 15-7 (16-10 overall). Illinois-Chicago stands in second at 17-7 (20-14 overall).
“It was literally just a big series, we play the best when we’re having fun, that’s what Tatum (Christy) said, and we did,” senior Yazmine Romero said following the wins. She was 2-for-3 with a run scored in the first game. “So we brought out some props for fun, and it worked out.”
The irony of having a Hawaiian theme despite a gametime temperature of 42 degrees wasn’t lost on Romero.
“It was cold. We thought that made it better,” she said with a huge laugh. “It’s ironic, it’s funny.”
A common theme Friday afternoon was taking an early lead, with the Penguins plating two in the bottom of the first inning in the first contest, due to RBI knocks off the bats of Jillian Jakse and Nikki Saibene.
Game two shared a similar start, with a trio of runs being scored after sophomore Avery Schumacher blasted a pitch to right-center field, over the Oakland banner hanging on the fence, and onto Grant Street.
As the second-year right fielder rounded third and headed toward home, Penguins could be seen waiting for her arrival at the entrance of the dugout, donning their tropical-themed props.
“Today was probably one of the most fun days that I’ve ever experienced,” Schumacher said “With COVID last year and everything, I didn’t really get to play these teams or get to experience the team dynamic that we have going right now, and it’s unreal.
“It’s always nice to be able to be the first one to put runs on the board and kind of get our team going, so I was just really glad that I can do that for them.”
Striking first has become commonplace for a YSU team that has scored first in 17 out of its 22 Horizon League contests.
For coach Brian Campbell and his staff, scoring early allows the pitching staff to just go after hitters.
“When you have a couple runs on the board, it does give our pitchers the opportunity to attack the zone just a little bit,” he said. “They understand that by attacking the zone, they also have to understand how many batters are on base and those things there.
“It does relax the pitchers, and probably the whole team, I guess, but I look at it more as pitching and defense that when you’re able to get a couple runs, then you’re able to take those little extra opportunities.”
Continuing a strong senior campaign, Maddi Lusk (11-2) once again delivered for her team, going the distance, allowing only four hits and a pair of unearned runs. She also flexed her fielding mettle, by making a few outstanding fielding plays, including tossing a runner out while falling, and recording six assists.
“I think when it comes to getting out of jams, it’s all mental, honestly,” Lusk said. “I just have to work on hitting my spots, not trying to over-pitch and just trusting the defense behind me. It helps get out of jams, just the mentality that I can do it.”
Lusk helped her team distance itself during the second game with a three-run laser to centerfield in the bottom of the fifth, giving fellow starter Elle Buffenbarger plenty of run support.
“Hitting is very contagious in my opinion,” Lusk said. “I feel like when one person does it, we all just start stringing hits along, and that’s when we break games open.”
Buffenbarger (12-3) allowed seven hits, but also pitched a complete game, fanning 13 hitters, her eighth performance with 10 or more punchouts.
Also recording RBIs Friday were Grace Cea in game one and Milena Lacatena in game two as a pinch-hitter.
Now with 18 league wins, the Penguins have set a single-season school record for Horizon League victories, beating the old mark of 17 during the 2017 season.
Wins are always nice, but wins against quality competition? It just makes it a little bit nicer for Schumacher.
“This is a huge weekend, and we were amped to play today and I’m so proud of my team and so glad that we were able to pull two out, because I think that this sends a message to all of the Horizon League,” she said. “We’re ready, we’re coming to play, and we don’t mess around, we’re here to win.”