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YSU in first after DH sweep

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes YSU senior Maddi Lusk (second from left) reacts following the final out in the Penguins’ 2-0 win over Green Bay on Senior Day. YSU also won the first game of the afternoon, 3-1, and holds a one-game lead over second-place Oakland in the Horizon League standings.

YOUNGSTOWN — For a trio of softball players, Saturday was five years in the making — although they’ve known of each other long before their paths crossed at Youngstown State in the summer of 2016.

Maddi Lusk (Johnstown Monroe), Liz Birkbeck (Orrville) and Tatum Christy (Akron Manchester) were honored between games Saturday afternoon at YSU, as posters with photos and memories lined the gates leading up to the Covelli Sports Complex.

Lots of smiles and celebration filled the air, especially for the trio who lost their fourth season due to the COVID-19 pandemic last spring.

Having the opportunity to come back for one more go-around is one thing, but a doubleheader sweep of the Green Bay Phoenix (17-15, 12-12) by scores of 3-1 and 2-0 made Senior Day just a little bit better.

The first-place Penguins forged a bond when last season ended after just 15 games, but the bond between those three players, who have been by each other’s sides for five years, is different.

“It’s kind of crazy because we came here in 2016, and we’re all from Ohio, so we all knew of each other and played with each other even before we got here,” Tatum said following the sweep. “I think that just being here in Youngstown, we’ve always shared that good bond, not even just as teammates but as friends off the field.

“I know a lot of girls, even underclassmen, I knew of them before they came here, and we’ve all played for similar organizations and came from around the same background.”

For YSU coach Brian Campbell and his staff, it’s about having players who represent the program during and after their time with the team.

“I’m super happy that those young ladies decided to come back for their fifth year and utilize that COVID year,” he said. “They’ve been a big part of this program, and I could not be more happy of who they are as individuals and who they are as young ladies.”

After coming off a late night Friday with an extra-inning loss, YSU found the home dish early in Saturday’s opener, with a Jillian Jakse sacrifice fly to score Yazmine Romero in the bottom of the first.

Elle Buffenbarger once again provided her team with a dominant start, going the distance, and only allowing a single run in the top of the fifth, fanning six hitters. She earned her 11th win on the season, along with improving her record to 9-1 in Horizon League play.

An Avery Schumacher RBI single to left field made it 2-1 in the bottom of the sixth, but the huge opportunity came moments later for Birkbeck when she stepped into the box.

It was a big moment for the fifth-year senior, who has seen limited playing time so far this spring after missing the shortened 2020 campaign with an injury following a 2019 season when she tied the team-high in home runs.

She ripped a 1-2 pitch up the middle of the field, scoring Schumacher and recording her first RBI since May 8, 2019, against Oakland when she was also named to the Horizon League All-Tournament Team.

“That honestly felt really good, just being back out here,” Birkbeck said. “Just being able to play ball and score a run, that was a really special moment for me this year.”

Birkbeck was set to return this season anyway after being given a medical redshirt, but being able to once more play with her two fellow seniors made a difficult situation in 2020 a little easier this year.

“Just going through completely unprecedented times, there’s just so many times that we got to experience together,” she said. “Just so many various highs and lows during our college career.

“It’ll be interesting to sit back once we all talk about it instead of being in the middle of it, and I think it’ll be like, woah, but right now it’s just embracing that we get to do it together.”

The second contest ended in a 2-0 YSU (23-9, 16-4) victory, after Lusk delivered her fourth complete-game shutout. Nikki Saibene and Jakse accounted for the team’s two runs.

“It’s just a mental game, you have to be able to bounce back, flush it,” said Lusk after leaving Friday’s nightcap after two innings. “Don’t bring it into today and let it influence how you play today.

“No, it doesn’t feel surreal yet (with senior day), maybe toward the end of the season, but not yet.”

YSU faces Oakland next weekend at home with a one-game lead over on the Grizzlies (16-8, 15-5) in the standings. The regular-season winner ears the honor of hosting the Horizon League tournament.

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