Can YSU sustain success?

YOUNGSTOWN — The crowd started to fill the Beeghly Center earlier than usual on Saturday afternoon.

The Youngstown State University pep band was more than doubled in size with area high school band members a part of the merriment in the loudest area inside the nearly 50-year-old venue, the upper north side.

YSU President Jim Tressel even waved his arms like a conductor during a timeout in front of the musical group, giving the nearly 5,000 in attendance something else to see.

Check out my Twitter account @jvargoTrib to see it for yourself.

Even area high school mascots from Hubbard, Jackson-Milton and Struthers were in attendance, along with the Mahoning Valley Scrappers’ Scrappy and others. Pete the Penguin didn’t have to waddle by himself that night.

The line of children and parents for the YSU player entrance almost spanned the entire Dom Rosselli Court. This conglomeration is where mid-major basketball is in the Mahoning Valley, trying to thrive for the first time in decades, and not just for a game or two.

Winning in front of a big crowd hasn’t always happened for YSU, and that has deflated those in attendance more times than not.

YSU had only four wins out of the 11 times the Beeghly Center had 6,000 or more in attendance for a men’s basketball game. That was then.

The Penguins came into Saturday’s game against UIC having won their last five. Pessimistic perception said the Flames, who were on a four-game winning streak, would win, ending the Penguins’ rapid rise up the Horizon League standings.

But these Penguins, with a second-year coach and an upbeat staff, are determined to change the culture of the program with a core of freshmen and sophomores. The last time YSU accomplished sustained success was in the 1970s when Dom Rosselli coached a then-Division II team that had seven seasons above .500 in that decade.

Winning in front of almost 5,000 on Saturday, the Penguins ran their streak to six, a step toward not only changing the culture, but also the perception in a Mahoning Valley community that yearns for a winning basketball program.

Tonight, the Penguins wrangle with their biggest task to date — a game at the Horizon League leaders Northern Kentucky (20-7, 10-4). They follow that on Saturday with a teast at Wright State (16-11, 10-4). Those two are the most recent teams to get automatic NCAA Tournament berths from the one-bid Horizon League. Northern Kentucky is 15-0 at home, while Wright State is 12-2.

It’s been quite a turnaround for this year’s Penguins (12-16, 8-7), who are tied with Oakland for fifth place in the 10-team league. YSU has secured a postseason berth with Saturday’s win. The top eight teams after the regular season qualify for the tournament. The top four host first-round games March 5 or March 6.

YSU’s current winning streak started on Jan. 31 at Oakland, coming off a double-figure loss at last-place Cleveland State. The Penguins were in ninth place at that point and seemed destined to finish out of the top eight.

Let’s just say the Wright State and Northern Kentucky have the top two seeds and that probably won’t change.

UIC (14-13, 8-6) has games left against Green Bay and Milwaukee at home and at Oakland and Detroit Mercy next week. Green Bay (14-13, 8-6) is at UIC and IUPUI this week and hosts Northern Kentucky and Wright State to end the season. Oakland (12-16, 8-7) hosts Detroit (7-8, 10-17) on Saturday and has UIC and IUPUI at the O’rena to finish out its slate.

It’s a hard task to ask, but for the Golden Grizzlies to go 0-3 in these games would be beneficial to YSU since Oakland defeated Northern Kentucky earlier this season. That tiebreaker hurts the Penguins if the two are going for that fourth spot.

Detroit Mercy, a half-game back of YSU, and Oakland, in seventh, finish out Saturday at Oakland and hosting IUPUI and UIC next week. IUPUI (14-13, 6-8) is at Milwaukee and Green Bay this week and travels to Detroit Mercy and Oakland next week.

Only two games separate third place through eighth place in the Horizon League. Milwaukee and Cleveland State, which finishes the regular season March 2 in Youngstown, are not heading to the league tournament, relegated to ninth and 10th places.

With three games remaining for YSU, the possible scenarios are endless. The Penguins could host a home game in the league tournament with the YSU women who already have clinched a spot in the top four. Possibly a doubleheader on March 5 or 6? I’ll bet the Beeghly Center could get more than 5,000 that time around.

One step at a time. That begins tonight for a YSU team still establishing a winning culture as excitement is starting to spread around Youngstown.

“As a head coach, when you come to a place and you try to build something, to see some steps that are being taken place by your players, that gets you excited,” YSU coach Jerrod Calhoun said. “That’s why you took the job.”

YSU basketball fans are beginning to see the fruits of this coaching staff’s labor.

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