The Youngstown State baseball team begins its three-month quest to try and get back to the NCAA Tournament when it starts the 2015 season at Jacksonville State on Friday. The Penguins and Gamecocks will play a three-game series in Jacksonville, Alabama, with a single game on Friday at 4 p.m. Eastern and a doubleheader on Saturday at 1 p.m. Eastern. Live stats will be available for all three games, and live audio of the first two games of the series will streamed on JSUGamecockSports.com.
Youngstown State, which is under the direction of third-year head coach and former JSU assistant Steve Gillispie, had a magical end to 2014 when it swept through the Horizon League Tournament and earned the program's first NCAA Tournament victory. The Penguins were the No. 6 seed in the conference tournament and beat top-seeded Wright State twice, the third seed and the host school to win their first tournament title in a decade. YSU then went on to top Indiana State in a competitive Bloomington Regional that featured No. 4 Indiana and Stanford. The Penguins return 18 letterwinners, six position starters and 75 percent of their postseason rotation in 2015.
Jacksonville State also earned an NCAA Tournament berth last season as it finished 36-27 overall and won the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament. The Gamecocks were picked to finish second in the preseason OVC poll, and designated hitter Paschal Petrongolo and closer Travis Stout were named to the preseason all-conference team. Those student-athletes also earned preseason All-America honors from the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association.
The Penguins are slated to start three right-handers on the mound who combined for just five starts in 2014. Sophomore Kevin Yarabinec, who served as the team's closer last season, has been tabbed the opening day starter. He'll be followed by sophomore Jeremy Quinlan, who made five starts and was a Horizon League All-Tournament Team selection. Senior Josh North, who led all right-handed relievers last season with 21 appearances, is slated to pitch the series finale.
Hoping for an NCAA Tournament Lift: With the 2015 season beginning on Friday, Youngstown State is hoping that confidence and experience from advancing to the NCAA Tournament last season will provide a big boost in 2015. The Penguins return six position starters and all but one starting pitcher from last year's team that won the Horizon League Tournament and earned the program's first victory in the NCAA Tournament. Maintaining the championship-caliber baseball that YSU displayed in the Horizon League Tournament and the Bloomington Regional will be a primary goal in Steve Gillispie's third season as the Penguins' head coach. The last time YSU was coming off an NCAA Tournament run was 2005, and the Penguins had their best regular season between 1999 and the present with 29 victories.
A Look at the Schedule: As is customary with the climate, Youngstown State is scheduled to play its first 14 games on the road in 2015. The Penguins will play three game series at Jacksonville State, Tennessee Tech and Western Carolina over the three weekends in February, and they'll play at Indiana State and at Radford to start March. The attractive home schedule is set to start March 13 against Milwaukee. Other games at Eastwood Field include the first home game in program history against Ohio State on May 12 and Kids Day games on April 24 and May 1.
Gillispie Returns to Jacksonville State in Opening Weekend: Head Coach Steve Gillispie will see plenty of familiar faces and places when Youngstown State opens the 2015 season at Jacksonville State this weekend. Gillispie was an assistant coach at JSU for 11 seasons before becoming the Penguins' head coach prior to the 2013 season. With Gillispie as the hitting coach and recruiting coordinator, the Gamecocks won 30 games nine times and won the Ohio Valley Conference regular season or tournament title five times. YSU volunteer assistant Cal Lambert was a catcher for the Gamecocks from 2010-14 and was on two NCAA Tournament teams.
Preseason Predictions: A trio of Penguins have earned preseason praise from the Horizon League's coaches and national media outlets. In a poll of the Horizon League's six coaches, sophomore pitcher Kevin Yarabinec and senior designated hitter Jason Shirley were voted to the preseason all-league team. Sophomore outfielder Alex Larivee was a preseason first-team selection by CollegeSportsMadness.com, and Yarabinec was ranked as the sixth-best prospect in the league for the 2015 Major League Baseball draft by Baseball America. As a team, the Penguins were picked to finish fifth in the conference in the coaches poll and by D1Baseball.com.
Returning Position Starters: Offensively, YSU returns seven position players who made at least 20 starts last season. Seniors Brent Gillespie and Matt Sullivan return to occupy the corner infield spots and the heart of the batting order. Sophomore outfielder Alex Larivee, a second-team all-conference pick in 2014, has the highest returning batting average at .274. Senior outfielders Kevin Hix and Jason Shirley and infielders Shane Willoughby and Lorenzo Arcuri also return as starters. Both Willoughby and Sullivan were named to the Horizon League All-Tournament Team last year. Arcuri will move from the outfield to second base, and Shirley will see action as the designated hitter.
Returning Pitchers: YSU returns 60 percent of its innings pitched and three of its four-member postseason rotation from last year. Ryan Krokos' 11 starts last year are the most among all returners, but he is slated to man the back-end of the rotation with a new sidearm delivery. Junior left-hander Jared Wight and sophomore righty Jeremy Quinlan are the other two returning starters from the rotation at the end of 2014. Quinlan was a member of the Horizon League All-Tournament Team last year. Right-handers Josh North and Kevin Yarabinec, a late-innings reliever and YSU's closer from last year, could also move into the rotation.