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. Now, the program is on the rise again. As YSU is set to begin its 2015 season on Feb. 13, The Jambar tells a two-part story of the rebuild of Penguins baseball. Part one covered the 2014 postseason run and detailed how head coach Steve Gillispie landed at YSU in 2012. Here’s part two.
The YSU baseball program finally completed step one of its rebuilding process during the improbable 2014 postseason run. It took more than two years, but when the Penguins arrived in Bloomington, Indiana for their NCAA Regional on May 31, head coach Steve Gillispie realized a change in his team’s attitude.
“We realized we could hang with some of the best teams in the country,” said Alex Larivee, a sophomore outfielder. “It definitely made us feel like we belong out here in Division I.”
And that’s exactly how Gillispie wanted them to react.
The 50-year-old coach admitted that changing the program’s internal “loser” perception was tougher than he expected. It was a feeling that lingered through a 14-43 2013 campaign as well as a 12-36 2014 regular season.
So he knew that the adjustment was crucial in moving forward.
“With the lack of success recently, we needed to change it to ‘We are a quality program,’” Gillispie said. “I think our players looked at [making the NCAA Regional] as validation that they are a talented team.”
Step two of the rebuilding process — which was to improve recruiting — was no easy task either.
Making the Sale
Initially, Gillispie and his staff of Jason Neal and Kevin Smallcomb jumped right into the fire. Simply put, in the beginning in the summer of 2012, they tried to sell a struggling YSU baseball program to the Midwest’s top players.
“We felt we had the things in place to recruit,” Gillispie said. “But sometimes it was like running up a sand dune. You’re working, working and working. And then with every step you kind of slide back a little bit as you try to move up that sand.”
Often being rejected, this forced Gillespie and his staff to recruit smarter. They concluded that to be successful, they had to exhaust connections, pick their spots and dig deep.
Smallcomb, a West Coast native with numerous connections, hit California particularly hard, as this season’s roster features eight players from the Golden State.
“He just made me feel like it would be a good fit playing across the country,” said Larivee, a Sacramento native. “Even though the weather isn’t the best, he sold me on the facilities and playing time.”
Meanwhile, Neal and Gillispie dove into western Pennsylvania while continuing to chip away locally.
Although Gillispie found it tough recruiting Ohio’s top players — competing with Ohio State University, Kent State University and the University of Akron among others — it wasn’t his first rodeo. Not only did he recruit three eventual First-Team All-Americans to Nebraska in the early 1990s, but also his scouting position with the Philadelphia Phillies in the late 1990s gave him even more credibility.
“That helped in learning how to project what kids would turn into,” Gillispie said. “Then I also think helping a lot of kids move on to professional baseball in all the places I’ve been — that’s a positive when you’re trying to recruit.”
Freshman pitcher Nathan Neiderhiser of western Pennsylvania, who committed to the Penguins in the fall of 2013, was swayed by Gillespie’s recruiting savvy.
“The main attraction here was the coaching staff,” he said. “I saw what Coach G did at Jacksonville State and I believe in what he’s done here so far.”
As for recruiting locally, it’s another aspect on the rise for YSU baseball. While just one newcomer to the 2015 roster hails from the Buckeye State (outfielder Alex Core), four of the seven players that signed National Letters of Intent to join the Penguins in the fall of 2015 are from Ohio.
“It’s a matter of finding those kids out there that want to take that step with us and be part of something that we’re building,” Gillispie said. “It ended up, initially, that there were several guys coming in from far off. But we’ve been able to break down the door a bit with more local kids.”
As Neiderhiser tracked the 2014 NCAA Tournament last spring with two fellow high school teammates — one committed to play baseball at Penn State University, the other at the University of Pittsburgh — the future Penguin couldn’t resist boasting.
“I was able to talk to the guys and say, ‘Hey my team is going to a Regional, where’s yours at?’” Neiderhiser said. “Seeing how well they did, it definitely made me smile.”
It’s a big difference for a YSU program that hasn’t had much to smile about in over a decade.
“It’s come unbelievably far,” Kevin Hix, senior infielder, said. “We’re headed in the right direction.”
And it showed for those 13 consecutive days last spring.
“Winning the Horizon League tourney and an [NCAA] Regional game opened a lot of eyes,” sophomore pitcher Jeremy Quinlan said. “Before, people would just look past us. Now I think you can’t do that since we did some damage last year.”
Not even three years in, Gillispie happily admits the rebuilding process came along quicker than expected. And no doubt, it was significantly boosted by last season’s tremendous late-May run.
Now, the Penguins’ next goal is simple: Prove their hot 2014 ending was not a fluke.
“We definitely need to establish a consistency that we can compete for a championship every year,” Gillispie said. “We want it to be a thing where there’s day-in day-out, year-in year-out respect for the program. Just keep building.”