YSU is destination

More area players desire to be Penguins

Tribune Chronicle file photo / R. Michael Semple Youngstown State football coach Bo Pelini has succeeded in recruiting a large number of area players to the downtown Youngstown campus.

YOUNGSTOWN — It was getting dark as Dra Rushton walked around the campus of Youngstown State University as a sophomore in high school, and he suddenly got a visitor.

“(YSU President Jim Tressel) pulled up next to me on the golf cart, him and his wife,” said Rushton, a 2018 Liberty graduate who will play football for the Penguins. “He was just asking if everything was all right, where we were staying, do we know where we’re going. He’s just always there to look out for you.”

Thing is, seven to 10 years ago, that visitor might not have been so nice, and it definitely wouldn’t have been the school president.

Things are changing at YSU, and for the best.

From numerous campus renovations and updates downtown, to improved facilities and a wide-ranging curriculum, the campus has enjoyed a major facelift. Area athletes are noticing as well.

Along with Rushton, the Trumbull County Player of the Year in football, players from Girard, Cardinal Mooney, Ursuline, Austintown Fitch, Canfield, Poland, Salem and Beaver Local all joined the program during National Signing Day in February.

They’ll team up with another large contingent (19) of area players already at YSU. A university that once had a stigma as being a commuter school that students settled for is now becoming a place people look forward to attending.

“Everyone from around the area who’s like, ‘I’ll probably just end up going to YSU.’ It’s really not like that anymore,” said John F. Kennedy graduate Jacob Coates, a sophomore who picked football at YSU over a track scholarship at Penn State. “They re-did Wick Avenue, they’re putting up new apartments downtown. They’re trying to connect downtown to the main campus to try to give it more of a campus feel.

“The whole school is going in the right direction. Everyone’s starting to see that it’s not just a school to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to commute from home and go to school there.’ Downtown is becoming way more live. Everyone’s kind of catching on.”

Indeed.

Rushton, who also had several choices of schools, said he talks to people his age and younger about all the improvements YSU has made in hopes of persuading them to get on board. Aside from simply enjoying being from the greater Youngstown area, Rushton said he was blown away at the sports facilities and equipment the Penguins use.

“All the time people ask, ‘Man, why’d you choose YSU?’,” Rushton said. “I’m like, ‘Man, YSU is like any other D-I (school). We’ve got inside facilities. We’ve got outside facilities. We’ve got great coaches. You know, we’ve got Bo Pelini! We’ve got a great coach. We have the same opportunities as those Ohio States and all those other D-Is have.’ I always tell them it’s not about the big names all the time. It’s about exposure, working hard and you’ll get noticed anywhere.”

An old rival of Rushton’s couldn’t agree more.

Former Girard standout Michael Belcik is another Trumbull County player joining the Penguins. The speedy wide receiver said a big reason he decided to stay home was because so many friends of his, along with other local players, were making the same choice.

That wasn’t the only reason though. Belcik, born and raised in the area, said he’s always held YSU in high regard.

“To me, YSU has always been home,” Belcik said. “I’ve always been close to home, and I always drove past there as a child and looked at that stadium like it was an NFL stadium. Now I actually have the opportunity to play there. It’s an honor.”

The sudden influx of local talent resembles a similar time at YSU.

Back in the 1990s, numerous area players played roles in the Penguins winning four national championships under Tressel. His return, along with Pelini — a former Big Ten, SEC and NFL coach — is playing a role in a resurgent Youngstown.

“That had a big factor when deciding where to go for college,” Coates said of the two polarizing figures. “When I went on my official visit, all the guys were so welcoming, the facilities are great and the coaches as a whole are great guys, and they’re very, very good coaches. When I met one on one with coach Bo at the end of my official visit, he was easy to talk to, and overall he’s a good coach. I just kind of knew that’s where I wanted to be. It just felt right.”

The feeling seems to be spreading.

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