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Penguins get initial victory in Horizon

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes YSU senior Nikki Saibene slides into home plate to score the Penguins’ first run of the Horizon League tournament on Thursday.

YOUNGSTOWN — The Horizon League logo, freshly painted, glows in the bright afternoon sun on the side of a hill at Youngstown State’s softball complex.

Just a few hundred yards away, the same logo can be seen adorning Farmers National Bank Field, left over from the league’s outdoor track meet, the yellow and white letters slowly fading.

It’s been a busy week around Youngstown State, but the softball team wasted zero time making its presence known during the opening round of the league’s softball tournament, beating Robert Morris 7-0 Thursday afternoon to advance.

After Grace Cea singled to right field, scoring Nikki Saibene, Conchetta Rinaldi was called safe on an infield single to bring Hailey Niederkohr home.

With a pair of runners on, and the top of the lineup coming up, YSU coach Brian Campbell brought senior Milena Lacatena in to pinch hit, with just a good feeling in his gut after his team had drawn first blood in postseason play.

Lacatena, nicknamed “Jersey” — as was her older sister, Maria Lacatena, a YSU player a few years ago — because she hails from Stanhope, New Jersey, has a knack for coming up big off the bench with runners on base.

On a 1-2 count, she blasted a pitch far into the green area to the left of the centerfield bleachers, causing the Penguins to go wild in the third-base dugout.

Hawaiian props and all, the party was just starting.

“As soon at it came off the bat, it felt really good, so I saw it go in the air, and had a good feeling about it,” Lacatena said with a hearty laugh “It’s definitely big, it’s a big confidence booster, and then when we get that big lead, we just dominate. That’s just our main goal this year, the word of this year has been dominate. We want to dominate teams and we’ve been doing that.”

Of course, domination is made easier with the Horizon League Pitcher of the Year in the circle. Elle Buffenbarger allowed a few early base runners, but settled in for her 20th win of the campaign, fanning six hitters over six innings of work.

Sitting with 205 punchouts on the season, she’s only 14 Ks away from owning the single-season record, along with needing three wins to own the program’s single-season win record.

“I think that everyone gets more amped up for tournament play, not that we’re not excited for regular-season games, but tournament is just a really special time,” Buffenbarger said. “The fact that we get to host, and it’s the first time hosting, makes it more special for all of us to do this together. It’s awesome, Matt (Rollins) does a great job with our field, and we have one of the nicest fields we play on.

“I think that just being able to come here and show it off and have the home field advantage is just awesome.”

YSU christened its on-campus facility before the 2014 season. Previously the Penguins had played off-campus, hosting the league tournament i 2006 at McCune Park in Canfield where Tiffany Patteson knocked a walk-off shot to win the title.

This weekend marks the first time the tournament has been played on-campus, featuring four teams in a double-elimination bracket. COVID-19 restrictions led the Horizon to cut back on the normal six-team bracket, a decision made early in the year.

Thursday’s win improves YSU’s record to 36-13, tying the single-season win mark set back in 2003 (36-17-1), while also improving their home record to 23-6, riding an 11-game winning streak at home.

Avrey Schumacher doubled to right center in the bottom of the sixth, earning an RBI, while Cea recorded a pair of hits.

“To me it’s just relaxed and having a good time, and understanding that something that they need to see each other,” Campbell said following the win “When you do a pinch hit, Yaz (Romero) was probably the first one that got my warning because she was already out on the field, when Jersey hit the ball, but she was excited for her and to me that’s what I love coaching.

“That’s what us coaches love coaching, and I think that it’s something you can’t teach, but once they learn it and they become a team, it’s a beautiful thing to see.”

The Penguins are back in action this afternoon, facing off against traditional powerhouse UIC, which beat Oakland 5-1 in the second game of the tournament. Oakland and Robert Morris ended the night, with a 5-4 Golden Grizzlies win eliminating the Colonials.

When it comes down to it, it’s about having laser focus.

“To me, I think just coming in, the main thing I try to do is just stay in the game the whole time,” Lacatena said, hitting four out of her five career home runs as a pinch hitter “Staying in every pitch, in every at-bat, because you never know when you’re going to get called to go in, so you got to be prepared.”

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