Penguins clinch title; will host tourney
YOUNGSTOWN — With Jillian Jakse on first base in the bottom of the eighth inning, the most important run of the Penguins’ season was 180 feet away from home plate.
Avrey Schumacher stepped into the box, at that point hitless in three trips to the plate. The pressure of the situation weighed on a YSU softball team that was playing with the Horizon League title on the line.
Cleveland State’s Alexa Sieger delivered the first pitch of the at-bat, up around the letters. Schumacher turned on the ball and drove it toward the left-field wall.
The yellow softball sailed higher, and higher and eventually found a home behind the softball conference championships banner on the fence and into a sea of rocks. Appropriate, considering the aforementioned banner is going to have a new addition in the near future.
When Schumacher flexed her arms and crossed home plate, the celebration was just beginning as a mob of Penguins surrounded the sophomore right fielder, giving her a hero’s welcome.
The 3-1 extra-inning win, combined with a 10-2 victory earlier in the afternoon, clinched the YSU softball program’s first regular season league title.
Schumacher said she didn’t realize the ball was a home run off her bat.
“I had no idea,” she said. “Honestly, I had been 0-for-3 all day against (Sieger) and I went up there, mind blank, and I hit it as hard as I could. The wind helped me out a little bit, thank God. I’m glad, glad I could do that for my team.”
As the Penguins celebrated out in left field, tears of happiness and jubilation filled the air.
“I think for me, just being a corona-freshman, I guess you can call it, it’s massive,” Schumacher said. “I am so happy that I can do this like the older girls on the team and it was definitely a team effort. Beating a team four times is really cool to do.”
The first win of the afternoon featured a pair of home runs by Nikki Saibene, for a total of five RBIs, coming off a four-RBI performance Friday.
With Saibene posting a conference slugging percentage of .774 and YSU totaling six home runs on the weekend, it just comes down to seeing the ball well.
“Just excitement, obviously no one goes up there planning to hit a home run, I’ve noticed no matter if it’s someone coming in or someone who’s already in the batting order ready to do what they can ,” Saibene said. “Just this year, kinda playing for my team, putting myself aside and doing what I can to get girls over to score or whatever it is.”
Alex DeLeon and Maddi Lusk also recorded RBIs in the first game, with Lusk earning her 13th win over four innings of work. Her RBI single in the bottom of the fifth to score Hailey Niederkohr enforced the mercy rule.
Lusk, who won co-freshman of the year during the 2017 season, before seeing very limited action in the circle until the 2020 season due to an injury, has rebounded during her fifth year with the program, making the conference title a little sweeter.
“For awhile, following the injury (in 2018), I was a little disappointed, a little down,” Lusk said. “I had to build myself back, had to reteach myself how to drag my foot after my foot surgery. I just had to keep going through it, through time, but it’s nice to feel like I’m the pitcher I was my freshman year.
“It’s nice that (Tatum Christy and Liz Birkbeck) and I have been through it all, from freshman year living in the dorms together, being nice to all the experiences, being through college and now we’re on the other end of it, watching the younger ones enjoy it too.”
Kayla Rutherford (Cardinal Mooney) made her season debut coming off an injury, pitching an inning and fanning a pair of hitters, while allowing a run on a single hit.
Elle Buffenbarger went eight innings in game two, punching out nine Vikings (10-14, 5-27), allowing one run en route to her 17th win of the season.
The Penguins (33-11, 26-6) will now host the Horizon League tournament May 13-15, a four-team double-elimination bracket. It will be the first time as host for the Penguins since they christened their on-campus facility in 2014.
With the second-most wins in a single season as a program, YSU coach Brian Campbell said he knew his team was going to be special going into the spring.
“When we looked at it last year, I felt that something was different,” he said. “Coming into this year, by adding a few freshmen in there and returning the three fifth-year seniors, just mixing in and everyone just understanding their role on this team.
“If it’s coming in pinch-hitting, if it’s coming in baserunning, whatever the case might be, and I understood that once that started to go early in the season, and they just accepted it and did the best they could. When they get in the ball game, they want to do whatever they can for their teammates, and that’s why we’re standing here today because of that.”
YSU travels to Northern Kentucky next weekend to conclude the regular season with a four-game set.