Penguins embracing underdog role, again

No one gave the Youngstown State baseball team much of a chance entering last week’s Horizon League Tournament in Mequon, Wis. – and the Penguins understood why.

They were the sixth seed coming in to the tournament and entered with a 12-36 overall record and ended the regular season by being swept by Valparaiso in Niles. Not exactly a team on paper that screamed “watch out for us” when it came to the conference tournament.

The Horizon League should have kept an eye on the Penguins.

YSU swept through its four games – and beat top-seeded Wright State twice – to advance to today’s NCAA College World Series. The Penguins were placed in the Bloomington regional and will face the No. 4-overall seed in the tournament Indiana tonight at 7 p.m.

“I don’t know that it’s hit me yet, that we are here,” YSU second baseman Phil Lipari said. “We were the only ones who probably believed in us. We went into the tournament 0-0 like everyone else. As the tournament went along, our confidence grew and grew.”

Lipari, a Poland native, leads the team with a .322 batting average and a .489 slugging percentage. During the Horizon League tournament, Lipari went 11 for 21 and was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

While the infielder has had the most consistent bat for the Penguins (16-36), overall they struggled at the plate during the year, combining for a .256 average. However, the bats came alive during the conference tournament as YSU put up a .340 batting average and had double-figure hits in every game.

“We got hot at the right time,” pitcher Jeremy Quinlan said. “We are hitting balls, getting singles, playing defense and pitching good. It all came together at the Horizon League tournament.”

While Quinlan didn’t have much to do with the batting improvement last week, he is a big reason why the Penguins are still playing baseball. The walk-on true freshman from Brookfield threw the game of his career against Wright State, which was the second game of the tournament. He picked up his first career win allowing five hits, one run and striking out six. For his performance, he was named to the all-tournament team.

“I was just hitting my spots, throwing strikes like coach says,” Quinlan said. “They hit the ball, my outfield makes the play. Once I got hit in the knee in the third inning, it just got the adrenaline pumping. My team was there to support me.”

Quinlan will likely get called upon during the NCAA tournament, but getting the start in the opening game is Jared Wight. The sophomore from California has struggled a bit this season, tallying a 6.97 ERA and a 1-3 record. He and the Penguin pitching staff have a tall order in front of them as the Hoosiers bolster a .294 batting average, including six players who bat above .300.

The Hoosiers enter the NCAA tournament with a 42-13 record and received the top seed in the Bloomington regional. The regional format is double-elimination between four teams – Indiana, YSU, Indiana State and Stanford. If YSU were to pull off another miracle and defeat the Hoosiers, they will then face the winner of Indiana State and Stanford. If they lose, they face the losing team of ISU-Stanford matchup.

While the Penguins know what they are up against, they are embracing the dark horse role – as they know it has suited them well in the past.

“We understand we’re the underdog and that not many people are giving us respect,” Lipari said. “But, Valpo came in to the same regional last year and hung until the bottom of the ninth. If we do what we need to do, we should be OK.”