YOUNGSTOWN — Take a quick glance outdoors, and it sure doesn’t look or feel like softball season. But, for Youngstown State it’s the complete opposite inside the climate controlled Watson and Tressel Training Site. on campus.
It’s penguin weather in the Mahoning Valley, but YSU is ready to migrate down south for the start of their 2022 campaign as the softball team is set to face-off against Colgate and Gardner-Webb next Friday in a tournament hosted by the Runnin’ Bulldogs, which also includes Rhode Island.
Youngstown State won’t see their home field until mid-March, but weekends full of tournaments for the next month-and-a-half prove to be vital for a team that’s coming off a regular season conference title.
Although the Penguins are bringing back so much from last year’s team, progress is always needed in the fast-moving world of sports.
“They look within themselves as far as being an athlete, they know their weak spots, they know what they need to work on,” YSU coach Brian Campbell said. “When you have individuals like that, that understand that maybe I struggled with this pitch, when a pitcher threw to me.
“I think it’s been great, because they’re wanting to work on their weak spots and whatever aspect that might be to improve that area.”
The Penguins ended their 2021 season with a mark of 36-15, tying the program record for wins in a season. But they fell short of a postseason bid after bowing out of the Horizon League tournament on the second day at home.
Typically YSU will try to book themselves in a tournament slightly closer to home as February gives way to March and the home opener creeps closer and closer.
Four fifth-year players took advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA as pitcher Elle Buffenbarger, infielders Nikki Saibene, Milena Lacatena, and centerfielder Yazmine Romero all return.
Buffenbarger always has goals going into each campaign, this winter being no different for the right-handed pitcher.
“Working on confidence with each pitch being effective, with each pitch, throwing competitive pitches,” said Buffenbarger, who comes into the season ranked second all-time in punchouts, and fourth in wins in program history. “Always making sure my ball is spinning, I want my rise ball, I see what I want it to look like.
“Doing that with each pitch, whether it’s my curveball, my screwball, making sure that whatever I visualize in my head, I can accomplish on the field.”
YSU retains most of their 2021 roster, adding only three new faces with freshmen Bree Kohler (South Range) and Taylor Truran, as well as junior Megan Turner (Champion), a transfer from Kent State.
The motto for this spring from assistant coach Sara Zilles to the team? Being dominant.
“From game to game, it all starts at practice, our practices have been sharp and they need to continue to stay sharp,” starting catcher and Cardinal Mooney alum Concetta Rinaldi said. “Last year is last year, we know that we have unfinished business of being Horizon League champs, our regular season championship was a great accomplishment but we all know what the ultimate goal was.
“Just the energy that this team brings, especially this year, we just know that we’re good enough, we were in the right place, things just unfortunately didn’t fall our way, but this year, this is going to be the year for sure.”
Other local talent is found with pitchers Sophie Howell (Champion) and Kayla Rutherford (Cardinal Mooney).
Buffenbarger was named Horizon-League Pitcher of the Year last season with a 20-4 record, along with a 2.16 ERA and 212 strikeouts, as a first-time All-Horizon selection. The Penguins also return Freshman of the Year Jillian Jakse and Saibene, who tallied 12 of the Penguins 34 home runs.
Despite not considering herself a strikeout pitcher, Buffenbarger’s mark of 212 Ks was the second-most in a single-season for YSU.
When it boils down to the nitty gritty of it, getting the batter out, regardless how it’s done, is the bottom line for anyone within the pitcher’s circle.
“My focus is not striking people out, so after it happens it’s forgotten, my job is to mix up my pitches, and hit my spots,” Buffenbarger said. “If a strikeout comes from that, awesome, but that’s not my ultimate goal.”
Facing off against teams like Albany, West Carolina, Winthrop, Towson, Penn, among several other schools round out the Penguins early leg of the season, ending with a matchup against South Carolina of the SEC before YSU’s home opener.
“It’s about getting back and seeing live pitchers, and working on different defenses,” Campbell said. “Pre-season is very important for us, we’ll be able to go down there and interchange some of the lineup and see a different pitcher compared to our own pitchers on a daily basis.”