By Steve Wilaj
Last spring, the YSU baseball team won a conference championship and an NCAA tournament game in an incredible two-week late-season stretch. In turn, the program — which has struggled for the past decade — is on the rise. As YSU is set to begin its 2015 season on Feb. 13, The Jambar tells a two-part story of how head coach Steve Gillispie has rebuilt the Penguins for the past three years. Here’s part one.
It’s definitely a change for Steve Gillispie. And it’s certainly a welcomed one.
Nowadays, when the third-year Youngstown State University baseball coach logs into his Beeghly Center office computer every morning, there’s usually always something for him to read — someone for him to consider.
“We’ve recently seen a ton of emails from kids interested in the program,” he said.
That surge of interest in YSU baseball began last June.
It followed a magical late-May run in which the Penguins — who ended the 2014 regular season with a 12-36 record — suddenly reeled-off four straight victories to win the Horizon League conference tournament. Then, as heavy underdogs, YSU miraculously defeated Indiana State University (35-18) in an NCAA Regional game before bowing out to Stanford University.
“It put our name out there in a better way, instead of the program being seen as a negative,” sophomore outfielder Alex Larivee said. “We turned it into a positive.”
It took just 13 days (May 21-June 1), but that improbable stretch has allowed Gillispie to sit comfortably behind his desk on this late-September morning as his YSU baseball program — although just 136-305 since 2007 — is suddenly a desirable destination.
“Since our run, there’s been a really positive reception from kids in the region and kids across the country,” Gillispie said.
He was quick to point out that the Penguins — unlike his first two years with the program — already had four recruit commitments on Sept. 23.
And it got better. By the end of the early signing period on Nov. 20, a total of seven players signed a National Letter of Intent to join YSU in the fall of 2015.
“There’s certainly a better light shining on Youngstown State baseball right now,” the 50-year-old coach said.
The Right Fit
Ron Strollo, YSU’s executive director of intercollegiate athletics, can’t put a finger on exactly what went wrong.
When Rich Pasquale took over the YSU baseball program in 2008, he promptly went 86-187 in four seasons as the Penguins head coach. He was then fired following a dismal 11-44 season in 2012.
“Sometimes the recruits just don’t pan out,” Strollo said. “It’s hard to say what happened. We had a staff that was working really hard, but things just didn’t pan out on the field the way we had hoped.”
So, Strollo set out to find a new staff in the spring of 2012. And when Gillispie’s résumé emerged, he was blown away.
“When we really talked to people that were around him and knew him, they said all good things about him as a person,” Strollo said. “Then his vast experience really sold him to us.”
Forty-eight-years-old at the time, Gillispie had just completed his 12th season as an assistant coach at Jacksonville State University. However, he’d been in the business for much longer.
Gillispie’s first head coaching job came in 1988 with Division II Fort Hayes State. He then assisted at a handful of successful programs from 1990-1997 — including the University of Nebraska and the University of Utah — before becoming a Philadelphia Phillies scout for four years prior to joining JSU in 2001.
“Because of what YSU baseball had recently been, there probably weren’t a lot of candidates my age applying for the job that had that many years of experience,” Gillispie said. “I think that made me a good fit. Plus, I felt like [YSU] had some things to offer.”
Mainly, Eastwood Field in Niles — a minor league stadium where the Penguins play their home games — intrigued Gillispie. So did the Watson and Tressel Training Site on campus. He also saw the wide-ranging educational opportunities that YSU offers as a strong recruiting tool.
So, approaching 50-years-old and sensing it was “now or never” to become a head coach once again, Gillispie took the YSU job on July 4, 2012. He then hired assistants Kevin Smallcomb and Jason Neal and began the process of rebuilding the Penguins baseball program.