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Penguins gain split vs. UIC

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes YSU freshman and Cardinal Mooney product Conchetta Rinaldi leads off of third base during the second game of a doubleheader Friday against UIC.

YOUNGSTOWN — It had been 674 days since Youngstown State’s softball program had last faced another Horizon League opponent before Friday afternoon.

Like all other sports last spring, the softball tean saw its season canceled before league play started and before they even had an opportunity to play on their home turf.

League play wasn’t going to start easy in 2021 for the Penguins, who faced off against Horizon League preseason favorite UIC. The team split the first of two doubleheaders, with YSU winning 5-2 and then losing 4-0 in the second game.

“Well, I mean I think when you look at it, UIC is a good team,” YSU coach Brian Campbell said following the split. “Us going into it, I think that it was two well-played ballgames today, I really believe that, and fundamentally sound on both sides today.”

Pitching has been the story so far for Youngstown State. Fifth-year senior Maddi Lusk posted a complete game win on seven strikeouts in the opener against UIC (4-8, 1-1).

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes YSU pitcher Elle Buffenbarger tosses a pitch during game two, she had 13Ks in the loss.

Lusk is 3-0 with an ERA of 1.62 following Friday’s games.

“I felt great actually, it was nice to be back out there and be on the mound,” she said. “Honestly, it didn’t feel like I pitched a complete seven innings, like I felt like I could go again.”

Leading 3-2 in the bottom of the sixth inning, Lusk received a pair of huge insurance runs off the bat of her catcher, Conchetta Rinaldi, who drove a ball to left-center field for her first career home run at the college level.

A graduate of Cardinal Mooney, Rinaldi spent many innings on the field at YSU during her days as a Cardinal, but long balls feel a little different in a Penguin uniform.

“Hitting it here, it just makes it a whole lot better,” she said. “Especially now that I get to represent Youngstown, and it’s an amazing feeling.”

With COVID-19 protocols in place, there wasn’t a big celebration at the plate like there normally would have been, but she received a warm welcome around the bases by Grace Cea to push the lead to three runs.

Rinaldi is a second-year freshman following the shortened season in 2020, but she’s posting a .375 average at the plate for YSU.

Following the afternoon win, Elle Buffenbarger posted a complete game on the mound and tied her career high with 13 punchouts, but gave up a grand slam in the top of the fifth to account for the final score.

For Rinaldi, working with multiple starters in a single day is all about preparation.

“Our pregame is extremely important, I mean I always try and communicate with them,” she said. “I ask, what’s working, what’s not working, what we’re comfortable throwing, especially in timeouts.

“I’ll either go up, ask what do you want to throw, always get an input, and see what they want to throw. It’s their game.”

YSU opened its home schedule last weekend in a four-game sweep over Akron in the midst of near-freezing temperatures and wind chills below 30 degrees over the course of the weekend. The Penguins were also on a seven-game winning streak before their loss to the Flames in the backend of Friday’s doubleheader.

Nikki Saibene plated a pair of runs during the first game with a two-run single and along with Hailey Niederkohr’s RBI single rounded out YSU’s scoring.

The Penguins (7-3, 1-1) face-off against UIC again today with the front end of their doubleheader starting at noon.

“You just have to flush everything that happened today, and just come out thinking that tomorrow is the beginning of the series again,” Lusk said. “No pressure, just have to flush it.”

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