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Memorable season ends on sour note

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes YSU’s Sydney Payne, right, steals second base during the Penguins’ 5-4 loss to Illinois-Chicago on Friday in the Horizon League tournament at YSU. YSU later lost 3-0 to Oakland, ending the Penguins’ season.

YOUNGSTOWN — It was a wild, weird, historic and unprecedented softball season for Youngstown State — complete with an ending that the Penguins would like to soon forget.

Crying, along with an abundance of hugging, became the scene following YSU’s exit from the Horizon League tournament on Friday, but that doesn’t mean that the Penguins are going to hang their heads.

There’s plenty that will be remembered many years down the road for the Penguins, with 2021 providing every team with unique challenges following a 2020 campaign cut short.

A 5-4 loss to traditional powerhouse Illinois-Chicago, then a 3-0 shutout loss to Oakland penned the final chapter of YSU’s season, a year in which they tied the single-season win record with 36, a mark that was set back during 2003.

In an unfortunate turn of events, Friday afternoon was the first time all season that the top-seeded Penguins dropped consecutive Horizon League contests and it was the first time they’ve lost back-to-back games since March 20-21 against non-conference opponents St. Francis and Dayton.

“You just saw a team develop through being in the fall, not playing any outside competition, to coming back and getting rained out there the first few tournaments that we were in, and just starting playing and conquering so quick,” YSU coach Brian Campbell said following Friday’s doubleheader. “It just tells me how quick they came together for a common goal, and I’m not going to take anything away from this team.

“Thirty-six wins, tying a school record, first time ever winning the regular season championship, got some great performances and some great young ladies, and I just couldn’t be more proud of what these kids fought through, what we fought through, for the last year, and those things there all the way back to March.”

YSU did have its chance in the first contest with Sydney Payne representing the tying run 60 feet from home plate with one out after reaching third on a wild pitch followed by a throwing error. Milena Lacatena, one of the heroes of Thursday, came off the bench and was struck out, then Yazmine Romero grounded out to end the contest.

Nikki Saibene’s 12th home run of the season in the UIC contest was one of the few offensive highlights for a team that didn’t provide itself with many opportunities against Oakland.

Regardless of how it ended, Saibene, an All-Horizon League honoree, walked off the field at Ford and Grant streets with a lesson more important than softball.

“Don’t take anything for granted,” Saibene said. “This is our family away from our family, every moment, whether it was hanging out on a Tuesday night this past week and just getting every moment we could to hangout with those seniors before they were gone and moving on.

“I couldn’t ask for anything more, this team did a lot. Today it wasn’t our day, but at the end of the day we did do a lot this season, and there’s a lot of good things to take away.”

A trio of fifth-year seniors, granted one final opportunity following the COVID-shortened season, played their final games wearing the red and white of the Youngstown State Penguins.

Maddi Lusk, Liz Birkbeck and Tatum Christy leave YSU a year later than originally scheduled, but became a part of a legacy that will forever be displayed on a conference title banner along the left-field wall.

“I couldn’t ask for better teammates, because they’re not only my teammates, I also consider them my best friends,” Tatum said about Birkbeck and Lusk. “I know this isn’t the end for us, I can’t wait to see what they do in life. I know they’ll both be super successful and I know that this isn’t the end for us, we’ll definitely stay in touch.”

Looking out toward the horizon with most of the Penguins gone from the field following Friday’s postseason departure, Christy reflected on the legacy of a team that hosted the league tournament at its on-campus turf for the first time, and collected several regular-season commendations.

Along with going from a record of 25-29 in 2019 to 36-15 two years later, black numbers spelling out “2021” will provide the lone 2006 with some company on the conference banner by the time next spring rolls around.

“I think that we will forever have left our mark, and we’ll forever be remembered, and that is something that is awesome. I will never forget that, and I know a lot of people will never forget that,” she said. “Leaving our mark, that’s the thing that I’m the most proud of.

“Definitely this year, and last year with COVID, like we have completely turned the program around and left our mark, so that’s exciting.”

The Horizon League tournament concludes this afternoon at YSU, with third-seeded UIC only needing one win over second seed Oakland to secure the program’s 11th conference title.

With the double-elimination bracket in place, Oakland would need to beat the Flames twice today to win its first tournament title since 2015. First pitch this afternoon is set for noon.

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